“The girl with the red pigtails isn’t going to let me off easy.”
When you’re vegan, fast food is rarely an option. What was once my favorite of the big chains, Wendy’s, has long been a forbidden zone—I can’t be sure the fries aren’t somehow sullied by beef fat or lard. Sure, I think wistfully about the 99-cent crispy chicken nuggets that I ingested almost daily in my car as a teenager, smirking because no one could tell me not to. But those days are deep in the rearview mirror now. I live in Brooklyn. I write nut cheese recipes. I cook my own artisanal tempeh.
The girl with the red pigtails isn’t going to let me off easy, though. She’s trying to wrest back her psychic hold on my life, luring me back with promises of black bean burgers. Currently Wendy’s is only serving these meat-free burgers at 24 locations in Salt Lake City, Columbus, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina. They’ve been slowly expanding the test zone since launching the burger in Ohio last May, though, so chances are we’ll all get to try them soon.
The Wendy’s black bean option was launched on the heels of White Castle offering veggie sliders, while Burger King has had one on the menu for years (McDonald’s remains set in its ways). In a Zagat taste test, BK even beat the veggie burgers from burgeoning vegan chain By Chloe and much-hyped East Village spot Superiority Burger.
So why are the fast-food giants muscling in on those of us who quit meat, many in protest of the very practices that enable the scale and reach of their chains? It’s certainly the fear that they’re losing market share in a farm-to-table, anti-factory-farming landscape. Through testing they’re hoping to find out whether they can entice vegans and vegetarians—as well as curious omnivores. According to the social media response, the veggie burger seems to be doing both.
And the fast food old guard certainly needs to shake things up: The slightly more healthful fast-casual sector has been growing, often at the expense of the big guys. These veggie options are a simple way to grab back some of those consumers who would prefer to spend less money, but also don’t want to feel totally gross after lunch. While only 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarian (and 0.5 percent of those are vegans), trends like Meatless Monday and constant news about how unhealthy meat is are causing a lot of folks to cut back their beef consumption. But even as consumer taste gets healthier, the growing fast-casual restaurants catering to this shift—Sweetgreen, Veggie Grill, By Chloe—remain largely in urban areas.
I asked Veggie Grill vice president of marketing Leah Smith how fast-food chains going for a slice of the plant-based pie is going to affect their business. She tells me they’re happy about it: “Overall, I think we see it as a positive. There seems to be a macro movement toward this, so I don't think it's even just fast food or fast casual but dining in general.” In the suburban areas where Veggie Grill has historically not done well as a completely vegan chain, bigger, more familiar fast-food chains can fill those gaps.
This all makes Wendy’s black bean burger look like a huge step for plant-based options that have the potential to reach people nationwide. If you don’t live in a city and want to go vegetarian or vegan, it’s a rough transition that generally means making huge sacrifices when it comes to convenience and flavor. If Wendy’s, Burger King, and White Castle (what’s good, McD’s?) can offer up something to make life a little easier on those folks, I’ll be cheering them on—and looking forward to feeding my fast-food nostalgia on a road trip.