The landscape of the burger is changing. There’s no mountain of onion rings or waterfalls of truffle aioli. And the patty is getting a makeover, sans meat.
Fast-food joints big and small are scrambling to reincarnate the meat patty for the plant-based palate, with brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat ushering in the new era. Burger King recently rolled out the Impossible Whopper, and McDonald’s is hot on its heels with the P.L.T., a “plant-lettuce-tomato” burger now being tested in Canada. On the local level, Munchies, the all-vegan diner in McFadden Public Market, sold out of its coveted “bacon cheeseburgers” last time I stopped by, and I suspect the line snaking through the food hall had something to do with it. Each month, more restaurants are adding their own interpretation of a meatless burger—and with good reason.
While vegans currently make up just less than 5 percent of the U.S. population, according to The Economist, a quarter of 25-to-34-year-old Americans claim to be vegan or vegetarian. In 2018, sales of vegan foods in America surged 10 times faster than food sales as a whole. And just this October, Business Wire reported that the Impossible Burger was the No. 1 product sold at grocery stores on the East and West coasts, and it’s currently available at 17,000 restaurants nationwide.
Having found success in San Diego and Long Beach (see Erin DeWitt’s “Plant Power Is Long Beach’s First Vegan Drive-Thru Fast Food,” July 10), the Plant Power Fast Food franchise has set its sights on Orange County. The zinger? It’s going to replace a Carl’s Jr. on the corner of Brookhurst and Garfield in Fountain Valley, with plans to open in 2021. This strategy of taking over shuttered drive-thrus is part of the long play for the company. The move makes it easier for them to not only convert the space, but also to tap into the car-centric culture of fast food. But instead of picking up your Super Star at the next window, you’ll be handed a Big Zac—two “beefy” patties with American “cheese,” plus a tidy offering of pickles, lettuce and tomato.
A quick scroll through Plant Power’s Instagram reveals the company knows who is holding the credit card. The logo and packaging speak to ’70s cool, with orange, yellow and green color blocking and a round, Cooper font. Disembodied hands hold up various burgers and milkshakes for their close up—hitting all the marks of ideal content. But the cleverest aspect of it all is there’s not a single mention of it being vegan in its Instagram bio or on its website. Instead, Plant Power proclaims its products are 100 percent plant-based. This choice in terminology conjures up fresh vegetables and healthy sentiments, opening the doors for people who might have turned away at “vegan” or “vegetarian.” It’s a suggestion to eat more vegetables, not an appeal to abandon meat forever. For many, this flexibility is enough to get them in the door.
Each Plant Power location offers a lineup that nods to what you find at McDonald’s and In-N-Out. Aside from the soy-based burgers, the breakfast menu has every vegan interpretation of the McMuffin possible. Patrons can even chase down orders of animal-style fries with strawberry shakes made with almond milk.
In the same way that McDonald’s revolutionized the restaurant industry in the 1950s, it’s clear that new businesses are vying to do the same for the modern consumer—using the assembly-line blueprint to churn out plant-based versions of fast-food classics. And while Plant Power may be the first to supplant these fast-food giants, it certainly won’t be the last. In a way, it’s almost poetic.