- El Pollo Loco is now offering plant-based chicken systemwide through its new Chickenless Pollo Taco and Burrito menu items, according to a press release emailed to Restaurant Dive.
- The chain created the plant-based protein product in-house than partner with popular plant-based meat suppliers like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat because it "wanted to differentiate our product from all others in the marketplace and work with a supplier that could exclusively produce this product for us," a company spokesperson told Restaurant Dive via email. EL Pollo Loco also wanted a non-GMO product produced in the U.S., which it said forced the restaurants to exclude certain suppliers. Chickenless Pollo is made with 100% non-GMO soy protein and mimics shredded chicken.
- El Pollo Loco is the first chicken chain to offer a plant-based menu item systemwide, and the restaurant says it has more Chickenless Pollo innovations in its pipeline.
El Pollo Loco trialed the Chickenless Pollo in "an extensive product test" before scaling the product to all of its restaurants, a spokesperson told Restaurant Dive, and favorable customer responses made the chain confident that the menu item would resonate with its diner base.
The chain is a step ahead of its chicken rivals. KFC launched a Beyond Fried Chicken menu item last year in partnership with Beyond Meat that reportedly sold out in less than five hours at a single Atlanta store. The restaurant has since expanded its plant-based nuggets and boneless wings to additional markets, but not its entire system. Chick-fil-A has been exploring chicken substitutes since early last year, but has yet to even test a vegan poultry product.
QSRs beyond the chicken segment are also dipping their toes in the plant-based space. Del Taco added Beyond Meat's plant-based tacos to its menu in April 2019 and sold 2 million tacos in less than two months. It has since expanded its plant-based menu to include burritos. McDonald's is testing plant-based chicken nuggets in Norway while Burger King is trying out a plant-based chicken sandwich in Sweden.
More interesting, perhaps, than the speed of its product expansion is El Pollo Loco's decision to develop its own formula rather than partner with Beyond Meat, which is leading the way in plant-based poultry development. Impossible Foods does not currently offer a chicken product, but the company is currently creating chicken and pork products. Still, both manufacturers have lent significant star power to the restaurants that have partnered with them for chicken products and burger substitutes.
Beyond and Impossible's branding is essentially synonymous with plant-based meat, and attract new diners to to the QSRs that offer them. Burger King's trial of the Impossible Whopper, for example, generated an 18% uptick in traffic compared to stores outside of the trial. It's possible that customers will be slower to try El Pollo Loco's Chickenless Pollo product because the formula doesn't come with any brand name recognition, but diners' growing familiarity with plant-based fare thanks to Impossible and Beyond may make them more primed to try new plant-based products.
One significant advantage to creating an in-house solution is control of supply, especially since both Impossible and Beyond have suffered product shortages that have hurt restaurants in the past. But achieving the appropriate texture and mouthfeel for shredded chicken is a loftier task than simply producing a crumble or nugget. Even plant-based beef makers have stuck to burgers, which require only a crumble-like consistency to pass muster. It's a tall order for El Pollo Loco, and if it doesn't deliver mouthfeel and flavor as sophisticated as Beyond Meat, diners could be turned off.
Choosing a shredded chicken replacement could help put the brand in a good position, however, as initial excitement around plant-based offerings wears off and consumers begin to crave something more than just a burger or chicken nugget replacement. Burger King is already experiencing a slowdown in sales of its Impossible Whopper and McDonald’s is reportedly selling only 20 to 30 of its plant-based P.L.T. burgers per store per day, raising questions of whether it's moving enough product to make the offering worthwhile.