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McDonald’s sales of its plant-based burger get a boost from PETA stunt

McDonald’s developed its McPlant burger with Beyond Meat.  (McDonald's)
By Leslie Patton Bloomberg

A marketing stunt from PETA, the animal-rights group and a longtime McDonald’s Corp. adversary, has given a short-term sales boost to the fast-food chain’s plant-based burger.

The nonprofit group worked with McDonald’s operators in Texas and California to buy the McPlant burgers, sans cheese and mayo, in bulk for a giveaway that began in late March. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that McDonald’s, which is testing the plant-based burgers in 600 locations, can help reduce animal suffering by selling more of them.

Joey Blanton, a McDonald’s franchisee in Fort Worth, Texas, said PETA’s giveaway helped goose sales for the new item that he’s selling for $5.39 − a comparable price to a bigger sandwich such as a Quarter Pounder.

“We saw an uptick in sales after that,” he said. “PETA bought basically a bulk purchase for them to give away, that alone helped our numbers on the units sold per week,” he said, without giving specific figures. Blanton said it’s not unusual for his six restaurants to get large orders from buyers such as sports teams and other groups.

Before the McPlant arrived, it would have been difficult to imagine PETA helping McDonald’s. The group has long protested the treatment of livestock in the supply chains of McDonald’s and other fast-food operators. Now, PETA wants to help new plant-based offerings to displace these companies’ signature items. It has also touted KFC’s trial run of faux chicken nuggets, a stark reversal for the nonprofit that used to target KFC with images of Colonel Sanders soaked in blood.

Adding the McPlant to the menu permanently “will save millions of animals’ lives, which is our ultimate goal,” said Marley Delgado, a coordinator for PETA’s McPlant campaign. “It’s helping sales, getting the word out there.”

The McPlant and KFC’s plant-based chicken nuggets were developed with Beyond Meat. Delgado said chains’ move to offer nonmeat options shows change is coming to the industry. It’s unclear, however, how much plant-based meat will ultimately reduce meat demand, since adding it to menus is frequently cited as a way to bring in new customers rather than change current customers’ preferences.

There are also signs that diners’ initial enthusiasm with plant-based foods has eased somewhat. Dunkin’ reduced availability of a Beyond Meat sausage breakfast sandwich last year. Tim Hortons, meanwhile, recently began testing new plant-based fare from Impossible Foods Inc. in Canada after scaling back a trial with Beyond Meat in 2020.

McDonald’s, which is the world’s largest restaurant company, is still expanding its tests of the McPlant menu item. In February, the Chicago-based company widened a test of the McPlant to about 600 locations in the San Francisco Bay and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. In the U.S., the company had initially tested it in November in just eight locations. The McPlant is also sold in some European markets.

While PETA’s giveaway may bolster sales in the short term, the product’s success ultimately depends on long-term demand, according to Brian Holland, an analyst at Cowen covering Beyond Meat.

“I don’t think 10,000 McPlants in a vacuum would be enough to flip a switch,” Holland said. “McDonald’s wants to see the numbers continue to increase, not start strong and peak very quickly.”

Blanton said the McPlant isn’t selling as well as other menu items at his locations, but he added the product is still in the testing phase. He’s optimistic the McPlant will bring in new diners who are looking for vegetarian options.

“It gives us more options as a restaurant,” he said. “I thought it tasted good, it had a good flavor to it, but there was a little bit of difference in the texture between eating beef and the McPlant patty.”