Long before the Impossible Whopper at Burger King and Beyond Meat chicken at KFC, Taco Bell filled a fast-food gap for vegetarians and vegans with its easy ability to swap beans for beef and its “fresco” style modification, which subs pico de gallo for dairy toppings such as sour cream and cheese. The company even once said it wouldn’t pursue adding plant-based options from Impossible or Beyond, despite growing interest from other fast-food eateries in those menu additions, instead focusing on its own vegetarian offerings that have been available for decades.
But it seems that Taco Bell can’t resist the meat-substitute movement. “We definitely see that plant-based protein has a place on the menu,” Taco Bell CEO Mark King told Bloomberg News in an interview this week, adding that he’s met with plant-based behemoths Impossible and Beyond in recent months.
King didn’t offer too many details as to what a faux-meat menu item at the Yum Brands-owned chain would look like, but the Bloomberg article does note that the chain’s “growth and performance” are important to the overarching brand. Even for a business that has a dedicated vegetarian menu, there’s still apparently value in offering a plant-based meat substitute.
Del Taco customers have also long been able to sub beans for beef, but after the West Coast-based chain added Beyond Meat to its menu in April 2019, it saw a huge boost in sales: That July, the chain reported that its two Beyond Meat tacos were among its most successful, best-selling product launches in Del Taco history. Between April and July, Del Taco sold nearly 2 million Beyond Tacos and Beyond Avocado Tacos, and began offering the plant-based meat in even more menu items.
Taco Bell saw same-store sales grow 4% last quarter, according to Bloomberg, but the company may be hoping that plant-based meat draws in even bigger numbers, appealing not just to those who are already vegetarian or vegan but to customers who still eat meat and might not be completely satisfied with a bean-only Crunchwrap Supreme. (Taco Bell did not respond to a request for comment, but instead only referred to King’s interviews with Bloomberg and Nation’s Restaurant News, in which King sets a $20 billion sales goal for the chain and says the meat substitutes will roll out sometime next year.) That was part of the intention behind these meat substitutes anyway: both Beyond and Impossible have said their products are meant to appeal to meat eaters in a move to make everyone more environmentally friendly. And that’s been working; nearly 90% of the people eating plant-based alternatives don’t identify as vegetarians or vegans, a huge, recent increase compared to previous years.
Eschewing meat for a plant-based protein is a surefire way to reduce your carbon footprint. If Americans switched from beef to plant-based patties, it would be equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road for an entire year. Even the most “sustainable” meat has a greater carbon footprint than plant proteins such as peas, beans, tofu, and nuts—even if those non-meat options are being shipped from far away. Faux-meat alternatives meant to mimic burgers and chicken wings are more processed, though, which has raised concerns about their health and also makes them a bit less eco-friendly than something as simple as beans. A veggie burrito with beans, guacamole, and rice is equivalent to 355 grams of CO2, according to UCLA, whereas an Impossible burrito with guacamole and rice is equivalent to 581 grams of CO2.