McDonald’s’ six-month trial run of a plant-based burger — which began with much fanfare — has ended quietly with no current plans to add it to the menu.
Between Sept. 30 last year and April 6, McDonald’s launched two consecutive trials of the burger — made with a Beyond Meat patty — at dozens of its restaurants in southwestern Ontario.
The fast food chain dubbed the burger the P.L.T. (plant, lettuce, tomato) and said it was being tested in Canada for restaurants across the globe.
The chain publicly promoted the trial, which garnered international headlines due to its partnering with popular faux meat maker Beyond Meat to create the sandwich.
McDonald’s made no public announcements when the P.L.T. trial ended in April. It also removed information about the burger from its website with no explanation.
McDonald’s told CBC News it has no updates on the P.L.T.’s fate. Currently, the company is “evaluating learnings” from the trial “to help inform future plant-based menu decisions,” McDonald’s Canada spokesperson Veronica Bart told CBC News in an email.
Jenna Walker-Cronk is a vegan who lives in London, Ont., one of the burger’s test locations. She was a fan of the P.L.T. when it was available and was taken aback when it suddenly disappeared.
“I was really upset because it’s the only thing on the menu that I could eat,” said Walker-Cronk, who worries the P.L.T. may be gone for good.
“I don’t know how long it takes to get a product out, but I feel like, at this point, I’m not keeping my hopes up.”
Beyond Meat responds
When asked about the McDonald’s P.L.T. trial, California-based Beyond Meat offered a brief reply.
“We can only comment generally and share that we were pleased with the test,” said spokesperson Shira Zackai in an email on Monday.
But in a May 5 conference call with financial analysts following the release of Beyond Meat’s latest financial report, J.P. Morgan analyst Ken Goldman inquired why the P.L.T. test had ended.
“If a test did well, the retailer wouldn’t end it. They would expand it,” he said.
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown responded on the call that nothing was amiss.
“I can assure you, there’s no issue with McDonald’s,” he said. “There’s been no change in information since we began this test and got good results in the beginning and got good results at the end.”
Toronto-based retail consultant Bruce Winder suggests McDonald’s may take a while to figure out its plant-based burger plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused restaurant sales to plummet.
“It’s pretty hard to sort of make a decision on rolling out a product across the world, or even across America, when you’re in the middle of a crisis,” said Winder, author of the newly published book Retail Before, During & After COVID-19.
Meatless burger pressure
McDonald’s previously introduced a meatless burger, the McVeggie Deluxe, in 2002 in Canada, but pulled it three years later due to weak sales. Last year, competitors Burger King and A&W each launched a plant-based burger that remains on their menus.
On April 30, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski told CNBC in an interview that a plant-based burger will eventually be a menu staple and that decisions will be made on a country-by-country basis.
“When we bring plant-based on the menu, we need to be confident that there’s a sufficient level of demand that really will allow it to stick on the menu,” he said.
McDonald’s already offers a meatless burger in some countries, including Finland, Sweden, India, South Africa and Australia.
Food distribution and policy expert Sylvain Charlebois said burger joints need to add a meatless option to their menu or risk alienating the growing number of customers who want plant-based alternatives.
“It’s about recognizing that food demand is more fragmented. It needs to portray that through its menu,” said Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University.
Walker-Cronk agrees. “It feels like [McDonald’s is] behind everyone,” she said. “There’s basically nothing else that I can eat there except for the french fries.”
Last year, Tim Hortons launched a line of Beyond Meat burgers and breakfast sandwiches but then pulled the items due to low demand.
Charlebois said Tim Hortons’ plant-based offerings were destined to fail because customers don’t frequent the coffee and doughnut chain for burgers — vegetarian or otherwise.
“Proteins were never their game,” said Charlebois. “I never understood the Beyond Meat play at Tim Hortons.”
As far as Beyond Meat’s partnership with McDonald’s, Charlebois said it’s hard to tell at this moment what happens next.
“[Either] their courting is over, or they’re planning the wedding.”