McDonald’s launches Beyond Meat burger pilot in 28 Ontario restaurants

FILE - In this July 18, 2018, file photo a customer gets his coffee at a McDonald's restaurant in Pittsburgh. In a very limited test in Canada, McDonald's said Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, that it's introducing the PLT, or the plant, lettuce and tomato burger. It will be available for 12 weeks in 28 restaurants in Southwestern Ontario by the end of the month. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar, File)

More than a year after A&W became the first Canadian fast-food chain to sell the Beyond Meat burger, McDonald’s Canada is set to roll out a limited pilot of the plant-based patty to test its customer’s appetite for vegetarian eats.

The sandwich, dubbed the PLT, makes its 12-week debut as consumer demand for alternative proteins ramps up and eateries race to include trendy veggie burgers on their menus. McDonald’s test is late to the game, but industry watchers say it’s likely to resonate with diners despite one national chain recently pulling the burger from its menus due to lacklustre sales.

“There’s a lot of buzz around plant-based proteins right now,” said Vince Sgabellone, a food service industry analyst with market-research firm NPD Group.

At food-service locations in Canada, not including grocery stores, sales of veggie sandwiches and burgers are up more than 15 per cent so far this year, according to the firm’s research. Over the last 12 months, more than 20 million vegetarian burgers were served in the country.

People of all ages want more plant-based protein in their diets for a combination of financial, environmental, humanitarian and health reasons. Canada’s new food guide, released earlier this year, encourages people to eat more plant-based proteins, such as legumes, nuts and tofu, over meat.

Sgabellone said its a “very smart move” that McDonald’s would choose to enter the category now _ despite the lag behind some other Canadian operators.

McDonald’s, which will start serving the PLT at 28 restaurants in southwestern Ontario on Monday, understands the company is not the first out of the gate with this product.

A&W first introduced Beyond Meat patties in July 2018. Folks eager to try the burger flocked to restaurants and the chain temporarily ran out of stock.

The move set off a ripple effect in the fast-food industry. Since then, Subway Restaurants announced a Beyond Meatball marinara sub would come to select Canadian locations this September for a limited time. Vancouver-based White Spot Restaurants started serving Beyond Meat burgers, while Quesada Burritos & Tacos offered up a Beyond Meat burrito, just to name a few.

On the manufacturing side, Maple Leaf Foods acquired two alternative protein makers, Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Grain Meat Co., in recent years. Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain defended Lightlife’s vegetarian burger during a recent quarterly earnings call with analysts, saying it will be more widely distributed than Beyond Meat’s products.

The PLT’s main component is a Beyond Meat patty that will taste different than those on offer at other fast-food chains in Canada. Beyond Meat usually works with retailers to create a unique taste for their target demographic.

Michaela Charette, head of consumer insights at McDonald’s Canada, said the country is a great test market because its consumers tend to be accepting of new tastes.

McDonald’s likely also chose Canada as a test bed for Beyond Meat to hedge its bets, said Eric Schiffer, CEO of Patriarch Organization, a California-based private equity firm.

The company likely believed the burger might fail if first released in the bigger American market, said Schiffer, who thinks the pilot is a good move for the company before it possibly rolls it out to more than 100 countries.

Charette and chef Jeff Anderson, both of McDonald’s Canada, were tight-lipped on what specific metrics the company needs to see to roll out the PLT more broadly.

McDonald’s will collect consumer feedback on taste, track demand for the new menu item and watch to see if its preparation impacts restaurant operations. It will also be looking for data on whether vegans and vegetarians buy the burger, versus people who also consume meat, Charette said.

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s Canada has put veggie burgers on the menu.

It last introduced one _ the McVeggie Deluxe _ in June 2002. The restaurant pulled the soy-based patty sandwich from the menu “due to softer sales” in 2005, a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The company believes more than a decade later, its customers are ready to embrace a vegetarian option.

“Our guests and consumers, their taste palates, their preferences change,” Anderson said.

The pilot will help the company understand if their customers do, in fact, want a Beyond Meat option, which hasn’t worked out for all retailers.

Restaurant Brands International added Beyond Meat burgers and breakfast sandwiches across Canada some three months ago, before deciding earlier this month to remove the burgers nationally and breakfast sandwiches everywhere but Ontario and B.C. The decision was apparently made based on sales volumes.

“You don’t perceive going to Tim Hortons for a burger,” said Sgabellone as to why the veggie patty may not have played well at the company’s coffee shops.

He admits he never tried the product there, but said it’s possible the company failed to deliver on taste by not having the ability to properly cook burgers or failing to provide the right condiments and buns.

McDonald’s gets an advantage here because burgers are their bread and butter.

They already mastered making burgers and the PLT only offers a different patty, said Susan Weaver, managing director of Pearl Strategy & Innovation Design Inc. The Oakville, Ont.-based company provides strategy and innovation consulting in packaged foods and food service markets.

“So they should be able to figure out a way to make that burger taste good, fresh and hot.”