In China’s consumer culture, “limited offers” from globally-recognized brands have the distinct potential to command long queues and consumer frenzy on levels associated overseas only with hardcore Star Wars fans.
The collaboration between the buzzy American plant-based meat company Beyond Meat and fast food giant Yum China did not command anything near those lines, for now.
The Chinese subsidiary of Yum! Brands, one of the world’s largest fast food corporations, recently introduced limited edition, China-only menu offerings featuring Beyond Meat’s plant-based protein in three of its restaurant brands.
KFC tested a Beyond Meat burger in select stores in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Chengdu for three days. Taco Bell offered a plant-based taco in three stores in Shanghai from June 3 to 10. Pizza Hut made a burger with the plant-based patty, available from June 8 to 10.
I tried all three. I was impressed, but I didn’t encounter any Chinese consumers who were interested in trying the products.
After a hugely successful IPO in May 2019, Beyond Meat wants to bring its products to China.
In a country that overwhelmingly prefers pork to beef, loves fried chicken, is bursting with soy-based alternative proteins, and tacos and burgers are far from staple dishes, Beyond Meat’s botano-beef patty is a tough sell.
READ MORE: Start-ups and incumbents battle for China’s meatless future
It seems to me that Beyond Meat is keenly aware it is playing an away game. The launch tried to play to its strengths: Western food, big brands as partners, a launch so limited edition that it is basically a trial before the trial.
I’m the kind of person that always roots for the underdog. But the reaction from the public I saw was underwhelming.
Umami minus fast food grease
KFC was the first fast food brand to launch a Beyond Meat patty in mainland China. From the looks of it, it was also the most successful.
Yum China secured one of the famous burgers at an official tasting event. Faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this phyto-beast in the plant-based flesh, I invited TechNode’s visual reporter—and passionate eater—Jiayi Shi to immortalize the moment.
On one less-than-fine June day, we headed to outer Shanghai for the tasting in the sweltering heat and overbearing humidity. The selected KFC location wasn’t downtown or in a busy mall, it was in the headquarters of travel giant Trip.com; a marvel of glass and steel architecture with solid representation of all major food and beverage chains on its lower floors.
The KFC store was mostly empty, with only a few employees having a late lunch. A total of eight reporters from Chinese media showed up for the event, escorted by two Beyond Meat PR reps and two Yum China reps.
Our PR contact had told us that stock was so limited that she could attend but would not get a burger. Thankfully, they managed to find one for her. By the end of the press event, the KFC branch had sold out all the Beyond Meat burgers. Employees told us that they sold 500-700 plant-based burgers in total.
The Beyond Meat burger was very good, at least on par with your average fast food beef burger. The patty was juicy and bigger than a McDonalds or Burger King equivalent—a pleasant surprise considering that at RMB 32 ($4.80), it is twice the price of a regular burger.
It had that je-ne-sais-quoi flavor of fast food—plenty of MSG-induced umami—but less of the greasy meat aftertaste. The texture was practically indistinguishable from a beef fast-food burger; tender with the right amount of chew. The rest of the ingredients—bun, lettuce, spicy mayo, pickles, and cheese—added freshness and rounded off the sandwich.
All in all, a 10/10 fast food burger. I preferred the bigger, less greasy patty to the animal protein versions. Jiayi thought the patty was too big. Whilst I didn’t see the problem with that, our in-house fast-food expert found the patty overbearing relative to the rest of the ingredients. “It’s too much,” she said, shaking her head with a deadpan expression, as I was trying to plot my way to a second serving.
Two wild phyto-beasts appear
A few days later, we managed to track down another two Beyond Meat dishes in the wild. No PR representatives or company photographers were harmed in the consumption of our subsequent plant-based lunches.
The Pizza Hut store was in the basement of a busy mall, closer to central Shanghai. It was a sit- down affair and the sound of chatting clanking of cutlery filled the air during the lunch hour rush. The only way to get this particular patty was to buy it in advance through Pizza Hut’s Wechat mini-program. So we did, and were met with an unwelcome surprise.
The plant-based burger at Pizza Hut came with an uninvited guest. The pizza chain served a dish of two burgers for RMB 59, one with the Beyond Meat patty and one with a plain old animal protein steak. The steak was chewy and flavorless. It tasted like a bit of ham you forgot at the back of the fridge for too long.
The meat was so bad that we were left wondering if it was a ploy to make the plant-based alternative taste better by comparison. We tried to order the plant-based patty on its own or exchange the steak for another vegetarian patty. The waitressing staff was quick to reject our claims.
The Beyond Meat patty appeared to be exactly the same as the one served at KFC, but in fancier clothes—a bit like running into your gym buddy downtown in a tuxedo. The bun had a little more flavor and the burger was topped with kale, mushrooms, tomatoes, and a spicy mayo.
While I appreciated the effort to achieve a more sophisticated burger and the toppings were tasty, I preferred the humble KFC version. The patty doesn’t lend itself well to such attempts at elegance. You can serve it in a fancy chopping board and add black sesame seeds on the buns (as Pizza Hut did), but at the end of the day it remains a modest fast-food burger.
Pizza Hut in China targets a more upscale clientele, so their version of the Beyond Meat burger was on brand. The menu features less pizza and more steak, gratin, Japanese curry and matcha desserts, even a clam chowder soup topped with puff pastry.
On a different day, we sat at an outdoor Taco Bell seating area in an upscale mall. We couldn’t order in advance but were able to get three tacos each.
Taco Bell’s take on the Beyond Meat protein was my favorite, but—full disclosure—I really like tacos. The “meat” was cooked into something resembling a chili con carne. It was served in two tortillas, one soft and one hard, along with lettuce, tomato and sauce. I’m not sure if what made it so appealing was the texture, as it was cooked like ground meat, or the spices. It definitely tasted more fresh, perhaps because of a higher proportion of fresh ingredients.
Where are the queues?
Just because we liked the tacos so much, we ordered a total of six tacos during our lunch. We had no problem getting them, probably because no one was really buying them.
At the restaurants I visited during busy lunch hours, no one was trying out the plant-based products. No one was even looking at them with any curiosity, despite the fact that the stores featured gigantic posters for the product launches.
I’m not sure how much sense it makes to push burgers in China, where pork is king, fried chicken is the star of the fast food industry, and beef is generally dwarfed on menus by other protein staples like pork and tofu. Even at McDonald’s, chicken often leads beef on the menu.
But beef is the product that Beyond Meat developed, and it did so with a Western palate in mind. The US-based company not only went for beef, but designed it for burgers, sausages and tacos. These are not exactly staples in the Chinese diet, where noodles, rice dishes, and stir fries abound. So, beef is what it is trying to push into China. Some of China’s older generation is vegetarian, so promoting it as sexy Western fast food is not such an outlandish idea.
Along with China’s long Buddhist tradition come plenty of vegetarian soy-based proteins. But many Chinese youths have told me there isn’t anything appealing about this religion-inspired old people’s food. Avoiding this association is key to developing a trendy sought-after product in the new-age plant-based meat space.
The limited-edition, limited-time offerings of Western food at well-known chains are a sound marketing strategy to this end. They can create buzz without breaking the bank, test consumer appetite and open the market for a hip plant-based protein.
A Beyond Meat PR representative said that the products “sold well” but that specific sales figures were not available. Store employees told us that there were less than a few thousand items across the selected Yum China stores in Shanghai. Maybe the launch created some interest in the product, but nowhere near what other brands have accomplished in China.