With the rise of Impossible and Beyond burgers, the veggie burger has been in a bit of an existential crisis on American menus lately, as restaurants (and fast food chains in particular) quickly — and, for some, controversially — adopted the new products. In the Washington Post in 2019, Alicia Kennedy, author of the forthcoming No Meat Required, posed the question: With tech burgers taking over, “will true veggie burgers go extinct?”
But today, in a sign that the pendulum may be, on a large scale, swinging back in favor of old-school, actual-vegetable veggie burgers: Shake Shack announced that it’s launching the Veggie Shack, a true-to-form veggie burger made with mushrooms, sweet potatoes, carrots, farro, and quinoa.
Despite fast food’s eager adoption of the new fake meat products, the category appears to be in a slump. Over the past three years, Burger King has struggled with its Impossible Whopper, McDonald’s has dumped its meatless McPlant, and Dunkin’ has found that Beyond sausage floundered. The New York Times reported that between 2021 and 2022, Beyond Meat’s stocks dropped nearly 83 percent. But real vegetables, flavored well — that’s a veggie burger option we ought to return to. And Shake Shack seems to agree, rolling out its new veggie burger across the country this week.
Unlike its other burger-slinging competitors, Shake Shack has notably resisted tech burgers; the primary vegetarian option on its menu before this week was the fried, cheese-filled ‘Shroom Burger. It has previously tested other variations on the Veggie Shack for limited periods in select locations. Chik-fil-A took a similar approach earlier this year, testing a fried cauliflower sandwich as a vegetarian option (instead of, say, a fried fake chicken cutlet).
Its many problems aside, corporate fast food is a good indicator of consumer interest. What it puts on the menu is what it assumes to be appealing to a broad swath of American consumers. (It’s clearly not always right, as is the case with its unsuccessful fake meat experiments.) But this big reappearance of the definitely-vegetables burger suggests that people are interested in a return to form after trying out tech burgers.
For one thing, good vegetable burgers are a little less contentious than fake meat. Meat is rife with cultural meanings, making plant-based approximations particularly polarizing; not to mention, not even vegetarians necessarily want fake meat either. Finally, fast food brands are recognizing what vegetarians have long known: There is so much potential in making real, recognizable vegetables and legumes taste good, in patty form, without the need to approximate beef.