The McVegans Are Coming
According to Mark Bittman, there are vegetables afoot in the fast food industry:
Twelve years after the publication of “Fast Food Nation” and nearly as long since Morgan Spurlock almost ate himself to death, our relationship with fast food has changed. We’ve gone from the whistle-blowing stage to the higher-expectations stage, and some of those expectations are being met. Various states have passed measures to limit the confinement of farm animals. In-N-Out Burger has demonstrated that you don’t have to underpay your employees to be profitable. There are dozens of plant-based alternatives to meat, with more on the way; increasingly, they’re pretty good.
The fulfillment of these expectations has led to higher ones. My experience at the airport only confirmed what I’d been hearing for years from analysts in the fast-food industry. After the success of companies like Whole Foods, and healthful (or theoretically healthful) brands like Annie’s and Kashi, there’s now a market for a fast-food chain that’s not only healthful itself, but vegetarian-friendly, sustainable and even humane. And, this being fast food: cheap. “It is significant, and I do believe it is coming from consumer desire to have choices and more balance,” says Andy Barish, a restaurant analyst at Jefferies LLC, the investment bank. “And it’s not just the coasts anymore.” [snip]
…When I first entered a Veggie Grill [founded by two vegans], I expected a room full of skinny vegans talking about their vegan-ness. Instead, at locations in Hollywood, El Segundo and Westwood, the lines could have been anywhere, even an airport Taco Bell. The diners appeared mixed by class and weight, and sure looked like omnivores, which they mostly are. The company’s research shows that about 70 percent of its customers eat meat or fish, a fact that seems both reflected in its menu and its instant success. Veggie Grill won best American restaurant in the 2012 Los Angeles Times readers’ poll, and sales are up 16 percent in existing stores compared with last year. The plan is to double those 18 locations every 18 months for the foreseeable future — “fast enough to stay ahead of competitors, but not so fast as to lose our cultural DNA,” Boylan said. In 2011, the founders brought in a new C.E.O., Greg Dollarhyde, who helped Baja Fresh become a national chain before its sale to Wendy’s for nearly $300 million.
Sure hope Bittman is right, because vegan and vegetarian penetration of the fast-food market would be the most encouraging sign of a real cultural shift I’ve seen yet. In the meantime, here’s hoping Veggie Grill comes to Washington, DC soon.