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Plant-Based Meat Menu Items are Making a Comeback

Menu innovation has largely been paused during the pandemic, but brands like Jack in the Box are starting to roll out alternative protein options again.

Remember 2019, when the biggest news items were the Chicken Sandwich Wars and plant-based meats? Well, it appears that Jack in the Box is throwing it back to the pre-pandemic days with the rollout of its new “unchicken” sandwich. 

Jack in the Box and Raised & Rooted, Tyson Foods' brand for alternative protein products, have debuted Jack’s Unchicken and Spicy Unchicken sandwiches in select locations in Monterey and Salinas, California, and Reno, Nevada, according to a press release

While menu innovation, especially plant-based product releases, were mostly paused during the height of the pandemic in March and April, the addition of alternative protein options began to increase in the summer and fall at chains including Corner Bakery, The Habit Burger, Starbucks, Papa Murphy’s, KFC and Wawa.

The plant-based meat trend started in January 2019 when Carl’s Jr. cooked up a partnership with Beyond Meat to roll out The Beyond Famous Star burger at 1,100 locations nationwide. After the success of that item, a swarm of brands in the burger segment followed suit, including sister brand Hardee’s and White Castle. As opposed to the vegetarian options of the past, this new generation of plant-based proteins smells, tastes and even bleeds like real meat.

The trend climaxed in June when Burger King launched its Impossible Whopper nationwide in an effort to appeal to both long-time vegetarians and a younger, more eco-conscious audience. The offering was an explosive success, with Burger King experiencing a 17% increase in visits compared to the previous month. In fact, the rollout may have been too successful. In May, the demand for Burger King’s Impossible Whopper proved to be too much for the Impossible Foods company to keep up with. While the shortage hit independent operators the hardest, QSR chains like White Castle and Red Robin even reported shortages of the plant-based patties. Although meat alternatives require only a fraction of the resources of real meat, the production process is comparatively expensive and time-consuming. After Burger King relaunched its Impossible Whopper, it drove 5% of the chain’s U.S. comp sales during Q3 2019. 

When it comes to plant-based chicken, KFC sold out of its menu item in less than five hours during a trial in Atlanta. The company has since brought the item to several new markets, serving it for a limited time in Nashville, Tennessee, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The company expanded the product to 50 locations in Southern California in July. 

While KFC was one of the first QSRs to test a plant-based chicken product, Jack in the Box appears to be the first to launch a plant-based chicken sandwich, which could pique consumer interest. 

As plant-based menu items start popping up again, the future for the industry looks bright. Prices could drop in the future with more options available to foodservice providers than just Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Along with Tyson Foods' expansion into the plant-based realm, Nestlé, Morningstar and Before the Butcher have announced new products. Having more suppliers will also help avoid those supply shortages, which left a lot of independent restaurants in the lurch. 

Consumer sentiment has also shifted since the start of the year, with 30% of consumers in August compared to 23% of consumers in January saying they would likely switch to another restaurant brand that offered plant-based meats, according to a survey by Revenue Management Services. But while 49% say they are willing to pay more for plant-based meats, 53% believe they are too expensive. Despite the cost, 49% of consumers said they have eaten plant-based proteins over the last 12 months and 39% said they are eating them weekly.

Although plant-based meat alternatives may not be as relevant as they once were, it's unclear whether consumers were just momentarily curious about plant-based foods or whether this trend is in it for the long haul.