The idea of a plant-based patty being tested by Burger King makes business sense, if not health sense, to Washington University in St. Louis researchers who have studied the fast-food marketplace.
The beefless Impossible Whopper, announced by Burger King April 1, is scheduled for testing in 59 locations in and around St. Louis. If it’s a success with vegan and vegetarian eaters, as well as its burger-centric regular customers, Burger King plans to add the Impossible Foods-made patties as part of its signature sandwich menu.
While Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition, considers the trial offering hardly a healthy upgrade given its fat and calorie content, business researcher Raphael Thomadsen deems it “a good idea” that takes direct aim at the heart of the Golden Arches.
“Competition is fierce, and they can beat McDonald’s in terms of innovating to a new and intriguing product,” said Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing at Olin Business School. He has researched the fast-food industry and is working on another study with Olin faculty members Cindy Cryder, associate professor of marketing; Robyn LeBoeuf , professor of marketing; and Stephen Nowlis, the August A. Busch Jr. Distinguished Professor of Marketing, along with Olin PhD student Nan Zhao and Brittney Stephenson of Pacific University, who earned her PhD at Washington University.
“Our study shows that when firms introduce new innovative products, it can help sell their base product,” Thomadsen said. “I expect that this new product may have its own underlying demand, but also will increase the sales of traditional beef burgers.
“Ultimately, regardless of whether the product succeeds or fails, this is a good idea on the part of Burger King.”
McDonald’s move to introduce salad products in the 1980s brought a healthy alternative to its menu and extra business to a monolith. But it wasn’t a change that Burger King could replicate, Thomadsen said, because its customers tend to be younger, more male and less likely to enjoy salads.
“This seems like a good way for Burger King to get into the healthier segment while staying true to their core customers,” he said.
St. Louis as a Middle America testing ground is an “interesting” choice, Thomadsen said.
“Vegetarianism is spreading in the country, and the vegan/vegetarian restaurant scene is increasing in many urban areas,” he said. “However, St. Louis seems to be slower to this market there than in a lot of other comparably sized cities. I believe that the decision to test the burger here is a sign that Burger King is truly seeking to test the burger in a meat-oriented city. If they wanted to test market the burger in areas where they would get the largest uptake, they would have chosen another area.
“It also shows that Burger King is not interested in having this be a niche product. Rather, they want to ensure that there is robust demand for the item,” Thomadsen said
Other national chains have already adopted healthier options for those craving burgers where there’s no beef, but not to as much fanfare as this announcement.
“The fact that White Castle and Carl’s Jr. have successfully launched veggie burger options suggests that there may be robust demand for the product,” Thomadsen said.
Diekman, registered dietician and a past president of what is now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, applauds Burger King for offering a plant-based alternative, but notes that the Impossible Whopper is not significantly healthier than a traditional Whopper.
“If you want a plant-based option that has that burger taste, the Impossible Burger is your option — but it does come with similar amounts of fat and calories,” Diekman said. “But if you are trying to to increase the amount of plant protein in your diet, this should just be one part of a bigger portfolio of options.”
Diekman said bean burgers and veggie burgers are typically a healthier option with more fiber and nutrients and less fat.
“You pull in a lot of other nutrients with your traditional plant-based burgers, but they don’t taste like meat,” Diekman said.