Restaurants and fast food chains across the United States have rushed to add plant-based meat to their menus.
That’s resulted in booming demand for Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, the companies that together have two-thirds of the faux meat market.
But Taco Bell isn’t joining them—at least not yet.
It is going to focus on its dedicated vegetarian menu, Julie Felss Masino, Taco Bell’s president of North American operations, said in an interview with CNBC this week.
“We’ve looked. We’ve met with Beyond, we’ve met with Impossible — our head of innovation knows everybody, and they all know her,” Masino said.
At the beginning of the year, Taco Bell began testing a separate vegetarian menu, which it plans to roll out nationwide this fall. On its app and website, customers have the option to “make it meatless” and replace meat with vegetarian options.
The company says there are more than eight million possible vegetarian combinations throughout its menu.
The company has had vegetarian options for 57 years, and feels that focusing on them is the right path for now. “Vegetarians know that about Taco Bell,” Masino told CNBC. “They know that they can come in and customize.”
Taco Bell joins fast food giants such as McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A in holding off on the faux-meat trend, instead of diving in. (Arby’s has flatly ruled out the idea, saying it’s sticking to its meat-dominated lineup.)
The companies that have done so, however, are enjoying floods of business — in some cases, more than they can handle.
Del Taco, the Mexican food chain that stresses healthy choices, said Wednesday that it has sold more than 2 million tacos with Beyond Meat since the option was introduced in April.
Del Taco offers Beyond Meat in two styles, a regular taco and a taco that includes avocado.
I tried the regular taco at Del Taco’s outlet in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, where its windows were plastered with posters announcing the Beyond Taco’s arrival.
Normally, I get the Del Taco turkey taco, and I found the Beyond version to be fairly similar. It was a generous portion, so if you do get one, be sure to request extra napkins.
Based on Beyond Meat’s popularity, Del Taco plans to add a burrito version. It will feature cooked and crumbled Beyond Meat, beans, guacamole, tomatoes, lettuce, cheddar cheese, sauce and sour cream.
But Del Taco has only 580 outlets. Taco Bell has more than 7,000 in the United States, and nearly 500 more in 30 countries.
Shortages of plant-based meat are taking place, as the companies struggle to keep up with demand they might not have expected when they began introducing their products.
White Castle, one of the first fast-food chains to introduce a product with Impossible meat, regularly tells customers that it is out of its products.
I managed to snag an Impossible Slider when it was introduced this spring, but I’ve struck out twice since then.
This week, when I stopped by my local White Castle to check on its status, a sticker was pasted over an advertisement for the Impossible Slider, saying the menu item wasn’t available.
Meanwhile, some restaurants are experimenting with the way they use Beyond and Impossible, which are delivered primarily in patty form.
One local cafe told me that they take Beyond burgers and break them up for use in tacos and other dishes. My server said they’ve gotten a better tasting product that way, rather than use the pre-crumbled Beyond product.
Still, fast-food companies rely on younger consumers and parents for business, and data shows that those age groups are most likely to try the latest faux meats.
In 2019, the typical plant-based protein buyer is likely to be a millennial Asian male with an income of $100,000 and up, according to Susan Schwaillie, executive director of the NPD Group.
About 14% of American diners have sampled a plant-based meat product, but among those diners, nearly four-fifths do not consider themselves vegetarians or vegans.
Perhaps the reticence by Taco Bell and the other big players to dive in just yet will give Impossible and Beyond more time to build up their supplies of faux meat. Once it hits the biggest players, plant-based meat will be in a brighter spotlight.