- KFC restaurants nationwide will add Beyond Meat's plant-based chicken to menus, starting Monday for a limited time.
- Fast food companies have recently tested or added plant-based items as more customers look to trim meat consumption.
- KFC and Beyond Meat say they are bullish on the product despite the launch coming amid the surge in the Covid omicron variant.
KFC restaurants nationwide will add Beyond Meat's plant-based chicken to its menus, starting Monday for a limited time.
The launch comes after years of testing from the Yum Brands chain and Beyond Meat to create a meat substitute that mimicked the taste and texture of whole muscle chicken, like chicken breast, rather than the ground-up consistency of nuggets.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
The two companies first tested plant-based chicken at an Atlanta restaurant in August 2019 — and sold out their limited supply in less than five hours. KFC then tested the new item in Nashville, Charlotte, N.C., and southern California two years ago.
The popular fried chicken chain is counting on customers making healthier choices to fulfill typical New Year's resolutions. "This is really about where the customer is going; they want to eat more plant-based proteins," said Kevin Hochman, U.S. president of KFC. "It's January, so it's a time of New Year's resolutions and wanting to do something different in your diet."
More Americans are embracing a so-called flexitarian diet in which consumers cut down on their meat consumption for health and environmental reasons. That has driven the growing popularity of plant-based substitutes.
"From a supply perspective, we feel really good about it, and it's something we have experience with in initial trials," said Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown.
Hochman and Brown are so bullish on the product that they're not deterred by the current nationwide surge in the Covid omicron variant.
The partnership hits at the time of a national labor crunch, with many eateries running short-staffed. To run smoothly even with fewer workers, some chains have been reluctant to add new items or even scaled back their menus. Surges in new Covid-19 cases exacerbate those issues as workers call in sick due to positive tests or exposure to infection.
Nearly a year ago, Beyond Meat announced a formal partnership with Yum to make exclusive plant-based substitutes for Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC. Chipotle Mexican Grill rolled out plant-based chorizo Monday at its restaurants nationwide. It also is targeting customers who are trying to eat less meat in 2022.
Ramping up for launches
In preparing for launches to come in the new year, Beyond Meat poached industry veterans from Tyson Foods for its C-suite in December, adding Doug Ramsey as chief operating officer and Bernie Adcock in a new role of chief supply chain officer.
Ramsey spent three decades at Tyson, overseeing its poultry and McDonald's businesses. Adcock also spent 30 years at Tyson with a focus on operations and supply chain management.
"We're continuing to grow the operations team; they did a lot of work to help the team get ready in these final days," Brown said, adding the Yum tie-up has been years in the making. "They've helped us prepare for this and we brought in, I think, some of the top executives in the industry."
Beyond Meat is looking to get its stock back on track. In the last 12 months, shares have lost half their value, dragging the company's market value down to $3.9 billion. The stock closed Tuesday down 5% at $61.62 and short sellers betting against the stock represent 37.2% of available shares, according to Factset.
On the other hand, shares of Yum have climbed 30% in the last year, bringing its market value to $40.3 billion. Strong demand for KFC's fried chicken has helped lift the price. The chain's U.S. same-store sales jumped 13% on a two-year basis during its third quarter.
Synergies with retail
The partnership does provide an opportunity, however, for "Beyond" restaurant sales. The company is hoping to attract more customers to its grocery store products, which sold briskly early in the pandemic, but then saw declines in subsequent quarters.
"It has great synergies with what we are trying to do in retail," Brown said.
To promote the new menu item, YouTube star Liza Koshy will star in the plant-based chicken's ad campaign, in the latest partnership between fast food chains and influencers. However, KFC will not be targeting vegans and vegetarians directly with its marketing because the Beyond Fried Chicken is made using the same equipment as KFC's traditional fried chicken.
Customers can buy KFC's Beyond Fried Chicken in six- or 12-piece orders, with dipping sauce included. Prices start at $6.99, excluding tax.