When Arby’s president Rob Lynch looked at his newsfeed Wednesday morning, he saw a headline that made him wonder if he was having a meat-sweats inducing nightmare. A website priding itself on being the “ultimate source for all things vegan” claimed the chain, whose slogan is “we have the meats,” was in talks with Impossible Foods to add a plant-based burger to the menu.
Although carnivore-loving fast food giants like Burger King, and Little Caesars (which has a best-selling pizza that’s wrapped in 3.5 feet of bacon) have embraced Impossible partnerships in the last two months, Arby’s has no intention of following suit.
“It won’t happen on my watch,” Lynch tells Fortune. “The only way would be if I got fired for some reason.”
Lynch recalled his momentary panic after reading the misreport. “Please, please, please say it isn’t so!” he quickly queried colleagues, who reassured their boss no one was exploring plant-based options.
The next step: the fast food chain’s PR team barraged journalists with Arby’s no-meatless-at-Arby’s gospel.
Lynch said Arby’s embracing the meatless craze would muddy the restaurant’s all-about-the-meat image, which has been fundamental to its financial upswing.
“You have to stand for something,” Lynch said, with animal-byproduct patriotism. ” We’ve turned this brand around by making big, high quality, meaty, abundant sandwiches. That’s who we are.”
An Impossible Foods spokesperson declined to speak to media reports of Arby’s approaching them about a partnership, telling Fortune the meatless startup is “currently focused on scaling operations to meet the growing demand for its products at the more than 7,000 restaurants where it is currently sold, from single-unit restaurants to national chains.”
Arby’s Meat-Forward Ascension
In 2010, a J.P. Morgan analyst called Arby’s performance “amongst the worst in modern restaurant history” after the chain’s sales dropped 11.2% in the first quarter of that year–following its already downward tumble of 8.2% in 2009 and 5.8% the year before.
Things started picking up in 2013 after Paul Brown joined as CEO, Lynch as CMO and brand president, and the brisket sandwich was launched, which would become Arby’s most successful product, according to CNBC. The company also began to lean into the meat market (debuting its motto in 2014, now intoned by Ving Rhames’ basso profundo) and its sense of humor, which often came at the expense of vegetarians.
Arby’s launched a “vegetarian help line” in 2015 that tried turning herbivore callers by playing the sound of sizzling bacon as the ultimate gateway meat. It also served a one-day, all-vegetarian menu on Leap Day 2016 that simply extracted all the meat out of its existing sandwiches without offering any replacements.
“Our roast beef sandwich turned into a roasted sesame bun with nothing on it,” says Lynch, who has seen net sales increase to $3.9 billion in 2018 from $3.5 billion in 2015, with more than 3,300 locations worldwide. “We proudly put less vegetables on our sandwiches than anyone.”
Arby’s sells 160 million pounds of meat a year and is an equal-opportunity animal purveyor, having served roast beef, brisket, turkey, ham, chicken, lamb, duck, fish, deer, elk, and more on its menu. With such fealty to meat (albeit with a handful of poultry-accented salads), Lynch considers it “a bit misleading” to label plant-based proteins as meat–agreeing with a recent petition by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bar such companies from using the word in any form when labeling their vegetarian products.
Impossible Foods and rival Beyond Meat, which has partnered with chains including Del Taco, TGI Fridays, and Carl’s Jr., disagree.
“Meat is an assembly of amino acids that create the protein, so if we are able to replicate the nutritional properties, why wouldn’t that be meat?” Seth Goldman, Beyond Meat’s executive chairman, tells Fortune. “It’s not meat from a cow and we wouldn’t claim that. But it is meat.”
Impossible Foods touts their meatless products as being almost like meat since they contain heme, an iron-rich molecule found in cows and plants. “In fact, we think the cow can’t turn itself into delicious beef without the heme,” CFO David Lee told Fortune earlier this month after the closing of the company’s $300 million funding round. Impossible has a patent on the plant-based heme process.
Although plant-based proteins aim to satiate carnivores, Arby’s is far from convinced.
“It would be like if I called my roast beef sandwich a broccoli sandwich,” says Lynch, who was Taco Bell’s VP of Marketing before joining Arby’s. “It’s just not the real thing.”