WHEN a burger chain built on selling beef, lamb and chicken burgers chooses to remove animal protein from its menu for a day and promote vegan burgers instead, it is always going to be a controversial strategy.
The Grill’d burger chain certainly managed to generate some free headlines and social media love from the plant-based eating community on Monday, when it launched a 24-hour meat-free challenge, in order to promote the addition of four new plant based ‘Beyond Beef’ burgers to its menu.
Rather than offering a choice, customers could (ostensibly) only buy burgers with the vegan patties on Monday.
In a statement announcing the move, the Grill’d chain, which has 130 stores nationally, said it has seen a 10 percent increase in orders for its plant-based burgers (but did not clarify how low the base figure was that it calculated that increase on).
Some social media posters applauded the burger chain’s active public embrace of the plant-based/vegan movement, but there were clearly plenty who wanted the chain to know they found the stunt very hard to swallow.
A particular bone of contention was not the fact that Grill’d was offering plant-based burgers, but that it took meat burgers off the menu, removing choice and alienating its core, loyal customers.
Several were also angered by the chain’s “pandering to vegans” just days after vegan activists invaded farms and meat establishments around the country and, through intimidation and harassment, forced the closure of a Gippsland cafe.
“You are pandering to a small minority of cult-like people who attack farms, restaurants etc forcing some out of business. Put a veggie burger or two on your menu, but leave the meat on there 7 days a week,” one wrote.
Questioning why a beef burger chain would so actively promote plant based burgers over real meat, one tweet asked “do you reckon vegan cafes have a steak Saturday?”
Another questioned whether if each Beyond Burger was being transported from the United States (where they are manufactured), how they were better for the environment.
Sorry @GrilldBurgers , you’ve lost me as a customer. I’d rather support our sustainable, ethical livestock farmers actively working to improve #animalwelfare ….than eat some processed rubbish containing 23 ingredients shipped some 15,000+ kms from LA. #supportaussiefarmers pic.twitter.com/cxqDpxfwnb
— Philip Honey (@phil_honey) April 14, 2019
The Grill’d social media team described the Beyond Beef burger as an incredible plant based patty “indistinguishable from beef”.
Taking up the challenge, Beef Central visited two Grill’d outlets in South East Queensland on Monday – one at lunchtime and the other in the early evening – to observe the customer response and sample one of the vegan burgers. See separate restaurant visit report below.
Respectfully, we would have to disagree with the claim the Beyond Beef burgers are indistinguishable from beef.
As an eating experience, the plant based burgers were enjoyable enough, no question. But were they ‘better’ or even equivalent to a beef burger? We’re beef people obviously, but we would say a definite no. It is hard to imagine how a consumer, independent of those actively pushing a vegan or vegetarian agenda, would come to the conclusion that these particular burgers with the ‘fake bleeding heme’ are identical to a beef burger.
They are an approximation for sure, and we did think the firm, crisp edge to the burgers was similar to a beef patty. But the overall texture, mouth feel and aftertaste falls well short of the satisfying experience of the real thing.
Visiting two stores out of 130 is hardly a compelling or rigorous survey, but if the customer response at the two stores we visited was representative of what was happening at Grill’d stores around the country on Monday, then it would be hard to describe the marketing gamble as a big success.
Most of the tables were empty, and at least some of the customers who walked in during the 30 or so minutes we were there during the lunch time and dinner sessions walked back when they learned the only burgers they could buy were meat free.
Grill’d would have expected some customer resistance for sure, but it also seemed obvious that vegans or vegetarians weren’t flocking to support the stores en-masse. In fact some social media posts from people with presumably vegan or vegetarian alignments caned Grill’d for not going fully vegan, as some of the burgers sold with meat-free patties still contained bacon and/or cheese.
Grill’d has taken a clear gamble that the media-driven hype around vegan and plant-based eating that has emerged in recent years will be accurately reflected in actual consumer trends, and that where there is hype, there will also be paying consumers ready to embrace meat-free meals and burgers.
The chain’s founder and managing director Simon Crowe has previously announced his business would make 50 percent of its menu plant-based by 2020 – just one year away.
Other burger chains are providing vegan and vegetarian options. It makes obvious commercial sense to test market demand given the claims now being made about levels of support for vegan and vegetarian food and to provide consumers with that choice. But to do so in a way that isolates and alienates a large portion of the customer base, and to do so by regurgitating vegan slogans that meat is bad for the planet and for human health – would seem to be a risky strategy.
In taking the easy option of jumping aboard the hype of the vegan bandwagon, what Grill’d has missed is an excellent opportunity to educate its customers about the world-leading sustainability and welfare standards of Australian beef production and to help dispel some of the many myths about meat production – as its competitor McDonald’s has proactively done.
Here’s a quick impression of one of our Monday store visits.
Grill’d Oxford St Bulimba store, inner eastern Brisbane, 6pm Monday 15 April:
Located in the heart of Bulimba’s busy Oxford Street shopping and cafe precinct next to Woolworths, the Grill’d Bulimba outlet was hardly pumping on early Monday evening, with between four and seven of the 65 tables in the establishment occupied by diners at different stages during our visit. Granted, it was a Monday night – inevitably the softest night of the week for any mid-tier food service outlet – but it would be hard to suggest that the ‘Meatless Monday’ strategy had attracted patrons.
And that’s despite one of the senior staff spruiking for customers near the front door, offering free samples of the Beyond burger as inducement. Several prospective dining groups who walked in appeared to change their minds about sitting down, after discovering it was ’24 Hour Meat Cheat’ meatless Monday.
When we placed our order, the staffmember behind the till explained that while animal protein had been ‘taken off the menu’ for the day, he somewhat discretely offered us the regular animal protein menu, just in case we changed our minds.
Floor staff were less than enthusiastic when asked how the promotion was going.
Ten minutes after placing our order for a Beyond Simply Grill’d (plant-based) burger, it arrived – well-presented and looking appetising enough (see image above).
What the food scientists behind the Beyond burger have managed to nail is an appetising ‘crust’ on the burger’s edge after grilling. Apparently flecks of solidified coconut oil is the secret.
Nestled in a nice bun with lettuce, red onion, tomato and herbed mayo, the overall taste experience wasn’t bad, at all. But replace the Beyond pattie in the burger with a hot, fried potato scallop, and it would achieved much the same impression.
Sampling the pattie on its own, and apart from its crispy exterior, it distinctly lacked the flavour and particularly, the texture, to stake a claim as a realistic or convincing substitute for a genuine beef pattie.
And at $13.50 or thereabouts, it was hardly a cheap quick-meal option. The Grill’d menu offered to swap any animal protein pattie on the ‘everyday’ list for a Beyond vege-based burger, for an additional $3.
Would I queue-up for a Beyond Burger pattie again? If I was hungry, and there was no meat protein option available, I probably would. But lined up head-to-head against any decent beef or lamb burger pattie, and it’s hard to imagine any typical omnivore going for the vege option, based on taste alone.