LONDON / NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Burger King started offering its meat-free Rebel Whopper across Europe on Tuesday (Nov 12) in one of the largest product launches in its history and the first big restaurant deal for Unilever's plant-based patty.
Now available in more than 2,500 Burger King outlets in 25 countries on the continent, the Rebel Whopper features a patty made by The Vegetarian Butcher, a Netherlands-based manufacturer of faux meat products bought by Unilever at the end of 2018.
Restaurant chains have been testing products and suppliers in a race to meet growing demand for meat alternatives worldwide. Burger King launched the Rebel Whopper and the Rebel Chicken King in Sweden earlier this year and began offering a Whopper in the US that is made with a patty from Impossible Foods. Rival McDonald's, meanwhile, selected Nestle for meatless burgers it offers in Germany and Beyond Meat's patties for a test in Canada.
The Burger King deal in Europe is a coup for Unilever, which has added more plant-based products, including Hellmann's egg-free mayonnaise and dairy-free Magnum and Ben & Jerry's ice creams.
Burger King had developed the Rebel menu items in Sweden with the Dutch producer Vivera. The Vegetarian Butcher was "the best possible partner" for the Europe rollout, according to David Shear, president of Burger King and Popeyes for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Unilever shares were little changed in early London trading at 4,616 pence.
A launch of this size "is not an easy thing", Mr Shear said in an interview. "We're able to do it because of our joint expertise on being able to develop the product and scale it up so effectively."
The Vegetarian Butcher was founded in 2007 by ninth-generation meat farmer Jaap Korteweg, and its products are now stocked in more than 4,000 outlets in 17 countries. Chief executive officer Hugo Verkuil said getting snapped up by Unilever bolstered his company's ability to take on larger deals. Talks with Burger King on developing the Rebel Whopper began at the start of the year.
Burger King ditched Kellogg's Morningstar Farms veggie burgers in the US this month after the nationwide rollout of the soya-based Impossible patties, which cost US$1 (S$1.36) more than regular Whoppers. The Impossible Whopper was recently lauded by Mr Jose Cil, chief executive of parent company Restaurant Brands International, as "one of the most successful product launches in Burger King's history".
Prices for the Rebel Whopper will be set by each local market, though Mr Shear said he expects the cost will be "roughly comparable" with the chain's other offerings. The Europe launch includes Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Poland, and Britain will be added "very, very soon".
Made with a mix of soya, wheat, vegetable oil and spices, it is a meat-free alternative to the classic Whopper, but not necessarily a lower-calorie one. The version in Switzerland, for example, has 608 calories, close to the original Whopper's 640.
Burger King also is not labelling the Rebel as vegan because it's cooked on the same broiler as the meat products and comes with mayonnaise, although customers can request no mayo. Fast-food chains have grappled with this issue as they increasingly add plant-based options.
The Vegetarian Butcher has other meat-free items in its range, including a Chickened Out Burger stocked at UK supermarket chain Waitrose and soya-based chicken-style nuggets. Burger King plans to tap that potential, Mr Shear said.
"Right now, we're focused on the Rebel Whopper, but we see potential to go beyond that for sure," he said.