McDonald’s New Meatless Burger Is Aimed at a Different Kind of Eater: The Part-Time Vegan

June 6, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC

Two carnivorous journalists walk into a McDonald’s—and order vegan hamburgers.

It sounds like a joke, but it’s all in the name of reporting. We’ve arrived at the McDonald’s in Berlin’s Zoo train station to taste-test the new Big Vegan, a plant-based burger meant to attract meat eaters here in the land of broiled bratwursts and sizzling schnitzel.

To outside observers, Germany is, perhaps, not an obvious market in which to pilot a vegan burger, but a new breed of eater is on the rise here: the flexitarian, an occasional vegetarian or vegan, whom McDonald’s has its sights on.

“Although the proportion of vegans in Germany is still relatively small, with the [Big Vegan] we are specifically picking up on the far-reaching trend of occasionally abstaining from animal products,” McDonald’s Germany spokesman Philipp Wachholz said in a statement. “This lets us offer more choices, and we are also convinced that our new vegan burger will meet the taste expectations of all McDonald’s lovers.”

Soy, wheat, beets

McDonald’s introduced the Big Vegan to Germany on April 29. An ad for the Big Vegan plays up the burger’s ethical and environmental appeal, showing a tree-occupying protester facing off against a man with a chainsaw, which references the recent occupation of the Hambach Forest in western Germany by activists. At €3.69 ($4.15), the Big Vegan is not as big as a Big Mac; it’s on par with a Quarter Pounder—without cheese. The soy and wheat patty, colored with beet juice to make it look juicy, is topped with coral leaf lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles, plus the classic ketchup and mustard. It is a permanent addition to the menus of 1,500 restaurants across Germany, one of McDonald’s biggest international markets.

McDonald’s introduced its Big Vegan to Germany in late April. (Photo courtesy of McDonald’s)

The Big Vegan is not McDonald’s first foray into vegan menu items. Since 2017, its restaurants in Sweden and Finland have served up the McVegan burger, a soy-based sandwich created with Swedish vegan food company Anamma. Finland also has the El Veggo, a salsa-flavored soy burger. In those Northern European countries, vegetarianism is more entrenched, as consumers shun meat due to high prices and concerns about climate change.

The Big Vegan’s launch in Germany, however, marks the first time McDonald’s has marketed an explicitly vegan burger in one of its “lead” international markets, a group that also includes Australia, Canada, France, and the U.K. Plus, it just so happened to occur as McDonald’s home market, the United States, dove face-first into meatless burger mania.

Meatless mania

McDonald’s first entered Germany in 1971 with a restaurant in Munich; the 1,000th restaurant was opened in Berlin in 1999. Now, like in other markets, McDonald’s business there is running up against changing consumer tastes. With McDonalds, “the fries taste the same around the globe, but they test locally,” says Nicole Miller Regan, a senior research analyst with Piper Jaffray. Tailoring the menu to the local market can create products and best practices that the company later shares around the globe.

Two years ago, 34% of Germans ate meat on a daily basis; this year, it’s 28%, according to Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. It also pegs the share of vegetarians and vegans in Germany at 6% and 1%, respectively. (For comparison, about 5% of the U.S. population is vegetarian, and 3% is vegan, according to 2018 Gallup research.) Meanwhile, a 2016 study by market research institute GfK found that one-third of all German households consider themselves flexitarian.

Opening of the McDonalds Restaurant at the Zoo Terrace in Berlin
An exterior view of the McDonald’s restaurant in the “Zoo Terrace” in the train station in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Gregor Fischer/dpa, picture alliance via Getty Image)
picture alliance picture alliance via Getty Image

While McDonald’s seems to be answering changing consumer demand in Germany, it is seemingly behind the plant-based curve in the U.S., where it hasn’t launched a single ‘vegan’ product. Meanwhile, rival Burger King announced in April it’s working with Impossible Foods to test a meatless Impossible Whopper in St. Louis, with plans to expand it nationwide. Other fast food competitors—White Castle, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco—have also hopped on the meatless bandwagon, partnering with Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, whose IPO in early May illustrated—in dramatic fashion—the market’s appetite for plant-based meat. In fact, McDonald’s is so conspicuously absent from the U.S.’s meatless movement that a petition, with some 220,000 signatures at last count, is asking the burger giant to, please, join in.

A McDonald’s spokesperson declined to comment on whether the chain would introduce the Big Vegan to the U.S. market.

Meatless Burger Company Beyond Meat Goes Public On Nasdaq Exchange
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown celebrates with guests after ringing the opening bell at [hotlink]Nasdaq[/hotlink] MarketSite in May 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer—Getty Images)
Drew Angerer Getty Images

Given its rivals’ alliances with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, it’s of note that the star of McDonald’s Big Vegan is a patty from Nestle. The soy- and wheat-based patty was introduced in April in Europe as the Garden Gourmet Incredible Burger. Later this year, Nestlé will introduce it to the U.S. as the Awesome Burger under the Sweet Earth brand, a California-based vegan food producer that Nestle acquired in 2017. In an interview last month with CNBC, Nestle CEO Mark Schneider said, “We are deeply interested in the plant-based food area.”

Am I lovin’ it?

The question underlying McDonald’s new entry into the meatless burger space is whether its Big Vegan is any good. German bloggers have given the sandwich mixed reviews; Vegpool said the burger “tasted really meaty,” but Bento found the mouthfeel to be “somewhere between potato pancake and eraser bits.” My Fortune colleague and I are not food critics, but we found the Big Vegan to be more than palatable.

We both wished the Big Vegan had a little more zing—perhaps from a chipotle mayo or aioli kind of sauce—and wished it was a little more juicy, but we also both polished off our burgers before they had any chance of going cold. They’re solid as far as burgers go, hefty like a beef patty and they give you the taste you expect from McDonalds, with the soft sesame seed bun and the sharp tang of pickles. With a cherry lemonade and a side of spicy ruffled potatoes, I was totally satisfied.

And I kept thinking about the Big Vegan, wondering if it would taste the same at the Alexanderplatz McDonald’s across town. I went there a few days later in hopes of satisfying my curiosity (and hunger), but the Big Vegan was already sold out.

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