Late-night burger chain White Castle announced this week that it will start offering a 99¢ veggie slider, essentially a vegetarian version of the mini beef burgers the chain is known for. Coming from a company that sells sacks (and even crates) of tiny cheeseburgers to the munchie afflicted, the move is something of a surprise. Especially because veggie burgers and other fare marketed as "healthier" than typical fast food have barely moved the needle at other chains so far.
Veggie burgers remain few and far between in fast food. Burger King offers one, but Wendy's never has. In 2011, McDonald’s then-chief operating officer (and now chief executive officer) Don Thompson told investors that the company had attempted several times to launch veggie burgers in the U.S., including in Southern California in the early 2000s. But "we ended up serving four a day,” he said. Salads typically sell poorly, too, with only 2.3 percent of orders at burger fast-food chains including a salad main dish and 1.3 percent including a side salad, according to data from NPD.
Despite these headwinds, White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson says he expects the new veggie sliders, a limited-time menu offering, to attract new customers. In a survey the company conduced in 2013, veggie sliders were among the top three suggestions from White Castle customers, Richardson adds. And when White Castle tested the sliders in 12 East Coast stores this summer, the burgers sold better than other products launched in the past two years, including chicken and waffles and Siracha chicken sliders. Not bad when you consider that only 5 percent of adults report being vegetarian.
Until now, White Castle has had no vegetarian option besides fries, onion rings, and cheese sticks, and the only vegetables the chain stocks in the kitchen are onions and pickles (seriously, unless you count ketchup). So the company is likely banking on the idea that vegetarians, who probably avoided White Castle before, can now join their meat-eating friends for a meal. That prevents what's known in the industry as "the veto vote"—when an entire group decides not to eat at a restaurant because it doesn't offer a menu item that suits the dietary requirements of one person. “If options like a veggie burger exists, it reduces the veto vote and gives everyone in the party a chance to order what they want," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a food industry researcher.
It also gives diners the option to diversify their meal, Richardson says. A sack of meat burgers with a veggie slider on the side, perhaps, or a mix-and-match crate. Still, says Tristano, when it comes to healthy menu items, “our research indicates only half of the consumers who are looking for the healthier option will actually choose it when ordering.” Not that veggie burgers are necessarily healthier--their calorie and fat count (pdf) clocks in at around the same as plain beef sliders. The new burger does at least put White Castle on the map for those after a meat-free meal. And if it doesn't work, the chain can rest assured that 84 percent of vegetarians and vegans go back to eating meat anyway.