Restaurant Roundup: QSRs Debut New Plant-Based Options, CPG Products

Little Caesars

Consumers no longer need to go to niche vegan restaurants to find plant-based options beyond the typical burger substitute. As the plant-based space grows, major restaurant chains are adding more and more meat-free choices to their menus. This week, Little Caesars, Panda Express and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill have all added new alternative proteins to their menus.

On Monday (July 12), Little Caesars announced its new Planteroni Pizza, which is just what it sounds like — a pizza topped with plant-based pepperoni. The company partnered with alternative protein company Field Roast to create the topping and is also offering this pepperoni separately as an option for custom pizzas. The chain may have doubts about whether the country as a whole is ready to go plant-based, as the menu item is launching only in Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and Detroit.

Panda Express, meanwhile, announced Tuesday (July 13) that it is adding an entrée called Beyond the Original Orange Chicken, created with Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken substitute. Like Little Caesars, the chain is limiting the initial release of this menu item to markets in which it is more likely to take hold — namely, New York City and Los Angeles.

“The Original Orange Chicken is the next step in the brand’s journey to offer more diverse and plant-based options, while still delivering comfort and crave-ability in innovative ways,” Jimmy Wang, the chain’s executive director of culinary innovation, said in a prepared statement. “Creating a fresh new take on a classic favorite is a great and accessible way to introduce plant-based proteins to our guests and perhaps even drawing a new audience for Panda.”

Baja Fresh, for its part, opted for Beyond Meat competitor Impossible Foods. The fast-casual chain announced Monday that it is partnering with the plant-based food brand to create three meat-free menu items made with Impossible’s beef substitute: a taco combo, a burrito, and a bowl. These options will be available across the country.

Chuck E. Cheese Goes CPG

CEC Entertainment, LLC, parent company of Chuck E. Cheese, announced Tuesday the launch of its new frozen pizzas, available at Kroger grocery stores across the United States. The release marks a shift for the brand, typically known for its on-site experiences, toward reframing its food as its own independently valuable property. Granted, the frozen pizzas come with 250 eTickets for in-restaurant experiences.

“This partnership is just the beginning as we continue to grow our Licensing Division and extend our brand in new categories for families to enjoy outside of our four walls,” Melissa McLeanas, the company’s VP of global licensing, media and branded entertainment development, said in a statement.

The pandemic took an enormous toll on the company. Looking ahead, CEC Chief Marketing Officer Sherri Landry told PYMNTS in a recent interview, the company hopes it will be able to say by the summer of 2022 that it “has emerged from one of the toughest periods in our collective history stronger and more relevant than ever before.”

White Castle Expands Retail Production Capabilities

Chuck E. Cheese was not the only chain building out its consumer-packaged goods (CPG) capabilities this week. White Castle announced Tuesday that it is doubling the size of its retail food manufacturing plant in Vandalia, Ohio, taking it from around 75,000 square feet up to 150,000 square feet, a $27 million investment in producing more of the company’s frozen sliders.

“Our retail division has been growing steadily over the past 10 years, and we saw huge growth last year as people cooked and ate at home more during the pandemic,” White Castle President and CEO Lisa Ingram said in a statement. “Having more dedicated space to make more sandwiches will enable us to keep up with the increasing demand for our frozen Sliders.”

In January, White Castle stated that 2020 was a “record year … for its retail division,” noting that this division accounts for around a quarter of the company’s total sales.

Ruby Tuesday Swerves Away From Delivery-Only

Casual dining brand Ruby Tuesday announced Wednesday (July 14) that it almost launched a virtual brand, and then pivoted. Specifically, the chain launched its new Libby’s BBQ menu, which was initially planned as a delivery-only concept. Instead, the chain ended up launching it both as an option for dine-in customers and for customers using the chain’s digital ordering platforms for pickup and delivery.

The company did not offer a reason for this change of plan. It is possible that the brand initially conceived of this menu before consumers returned for on-premises meals, but saw an opportunity, once it became clear that restaurant dining was back, to use the new menu to attract customers back into stores.

Ruby Tuesday is a much smaller brand than it once was. In February, several months after filing for bankruptcy, the company reemerged, down from its 2019 store count of over 600 to just 209 corporate-owned and operated locations.

“This summer we welcome back gatherings with family and friends, and the flavors of the season like barbecue,” Jenifer Boyd Harmon, chief marketing officer for Ruby Tuesday, said in a statement. “[This gives] our fans another great reason to dine with us. Whether in our restaurants or delivered to their backyards, we go wherever our guests are celebrating with fresh, affordable and delicious food.”