Andy Puzder, the former CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of the chains Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, says that restaurants — if they're prudent — should cater to demand for plant-based meat.
"You really have to meet the needs of this millennial generation," he told Cheddar. "I'm not saying they're killing meat, but you are seeing the demand from that segment."
"If you're in business, you want to appeal to young consumers," he added.
Market research firm Mintel reports that eight-of-10 millennials eat meat alternatives and that one-third of millennials are trying to eat a more plant-based diet. Meanwhile, the Good Food Institute, a non-profit that promotes plant-based products, has estimated that more than $17 billion has been invested in the U.S.-based plant-based meat and dairy sector in total.
"Restaurants aren't the food police. We don't determine what consumers buy. We try to find out what they want to buy, and sell it to them," said Puzder.
"Ten, 15 years ago, if you introduced a plant-based product, it was because people wanted it for health reasons," he said. "This new product that tastes a lot like meat, it's really not healthier, it's got a ton of salt."
"They're buying it for more social policy reasons. I think people want fewer cows so there's less methane. It's sort of a global warming thing," Puzder added. "As long as people want this product, restaurants will sell it."
Puzder told Cheddar he resigned from CKE's CEO position, in part, because he didn't have an "intuitive sense" of changing millennial dining tastes. He left the post in March of 2017, just one month after withdrawing as President Trump's labor secretary nominee after Republican Senators raised concerns over his past.
Beyond Meat ($BYND) and Impossible Foods have seen an explosion in restaurant deals. Beyond Meat, which initially debuted in supermarket aisles, has struck up partnerships with chains including Dunkin', KFC, Subway, and Tim Hortons. Impossible Foods, which won FDA clearance this summer to sell in supermarkets, is now in thousands of Burger Kings, and also sells its plant-based meat in Red Robin, White Castle, and the Cheesecake Factory. Earlier this year, Carl's Jr. began offering Beyond Meat products.
But some chains are hesitant — or outright hostile — to the trend. For instance, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti told Cheddar earlier this year that his company plans won't be diving in plant-based meat just yet. And the leadership at Arby's has been adamant that plant-based meat won't ever be served at the brand's restaurants, and even released its own "marrot," a satirical meat-based carrot product.
Still, Beyond Meat saw one of the most successful public offerings of 2019, with shares that soared for months following the company's debut in the public markets. Impossible Burger remains Beyond Meat's largest competitor, but its executives have been insistent that the company will remain private for now.