Vegetarian in 30 minutes or less: how quick service restaurants are diving headfirst into the plant-based food space.

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Remember the old joke about how the meat at fast food restaurants “doesn’t have any real meat in it” anyway? These days, that’s exactly the point.

While Subway has been taking heat for the alleged mysterious contents of its so-called “tuna” sandwiches, Long John Silver’s is using the moment as an opportunity to debut the new, intentionally fish-free items they’re soft-launching at five of their California and Georgia locations.

The fast food seafood chain is partnering with Good Catch, a plant-based fish alternative brand, to sell fish-free fillets and crab-free cakes at these select locations as of July 19. The partnership comes hot on the heels of a not-so-subtle campaign Good Catch ran in a few US and UK cities: in mid-July, the brand parked vans in front of Subway locations and offered free fishless sandwiches. Instead of mystery fish, however, these subs were made with Good Catch’s flaky but fishless tuna, made from a blend of legumes. The clear message was, why eat mystery fish when you could eat something without environmental baggage like bycatch and pollution (a sentiment captured in the documentary Seaspiracy)?

Related: Frozen Sandwiches, Wraps, and Pockets are Delivering Flavor Without Meat

Quick service, hold the cruelty

Long John Silver’s is only the latest quick service restaurant to experiment with plant-based alternatives by partnering with vegan brands that also have a presence on grocery store shelves. It’s been a couple of years since Burger King started selling the Impossible Whopper, their classic burger made with a meatless patty by food tech star Impossible Foods. White Castle started selling Impossible Sliders about a year prior to that, to rave reviews and continues to do so. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts sell sausage-style breakfast sandwiches made with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat patties, respectively. Del Taco sells Beyond Tacos made with plant-based ground Beyond meat. And the list goes on. 

Despite what skeptics may have thought a few years ago, it seems like these plant-based meals aren’t going to be leaving fast food menus any time soon. They’ve quickly become mainstays for both vegetarians seeking a quick, filling meal and omnivores trying to improve their cholesterol and/or carbon footprint. And it really is remarkable: not too long ago, finding tasty and filling vegan food on the road or in small towns was unthinkable. Now, it’s a given.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. For decades, we’ve been told ad nauseam about the health risks and potential dangers of fast food. Meanwhile, revenue for the quick-service restaurant industry has risen steadily, from $159.2 billion in 2002 to $239 billion in 2020. Despite our culture’s growing anxieties about healthy and environmentally-friendly eating, we’re not abandoning fast food. Not by a long shot.

Related: Plant-based Meat Has Officially Reached ‘Global Phenomenon’ Status 

(Vegan) fast food nation

Instead, we’re watching the industry change with the culture. This summer alone, national chain Little Caesar’s teamed up with Field Roast to offer the brand’s plant-based pepperoni as a pizza topping, and Panda Express made its first step into the heavily tech-influenced plant-based food arena by debuting orange chicken by Beyond Meat. Two giant sectors of the food industry continue to test out new products and ideas that bridge the gap between our favorite comfort foods and our healthiest, most environmentally-conscious selves.

And these companies are wise to do so. Plant-based meat as a search term has exploded in popularity since 2019, right around the time Burger King introduced the Impossible Whopper. Whether fast food chains are driving the growth of plant-based food brands, or simply capitalizing on a trend that’s already in motion, it’s hard to say. Chances are, it’s a little bit of both. But any way you slice it, consumers in the US and beyond are getting used to having plant-based meat options available at their convenience. And as “real” meat from factory farms continues to make bleak headlines, Meatless Mondays are not only becoming more appealing, but more accessible for curious, conscious eaters around the world.

Related: Thinking Outside the Box: How Vegan and Vegetarian Brands Are Reinventing Frozen Pizza


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