The decade starts not with a bang, but with a meat-free face off. Greggs and KFC both launch new vegan facsimiles of two popular products today: the legendary high street pastry-slinger in the steak bake corner; the American chicken giant with a chicken fillet burger. Both use a bespoke Quorn-branded mycoprotein for the filling; both have a numerical signature hook — KFC with the 11 herbs and spices; Greggs with 96 layers of pastry.
Engineered by some ferocious social media marketing, coveted product label sightings, and bankable consumer goodwill behind its vegan sausage roll, Greggs’ launch has all the fervour of a fashion drop, testament to the space it has engineered itself as a communal, accessible high street bakery that actually knows how to function online. Serving a £1.55 vegan pastry with such fanfare might appear nauseating, but this is the only high street bakery in the country to openly, noisily troll Piers Morgan. Afford some respect, even though it will have lost the glow of “firstness” its vegan sausage roll exuded.
KFC’s burger, meanwhile, didn’t launch with its full chest, but a product trial in one London store was enough to get The Imposter, which is its real name, to market. Comparing this approach to Greggs’ new hot item is an instructive route to understanding the two companies’ priorities. Both naming conventions are predicated on fealty to an existing product, but while Greggs emphasises difference and newness, KFC wants everyone to remember the thing being imitated: its chicken.
This is also a significant coup for Quorn, yer Da’s normcore meat substitute that faces an existential threat from VC-funded tech companies, with their hubristic names and ceaseless desire to publicly recycle their environmental credentials. With McDonald’s staking its claim on vegan dippers straight from the 1980s and Burger King waiting for Impossible Burger’s EU regulation like a ... Greggs stan waiting for its vegan steak bake ... the fast food industry reckoning with plant-based profitability that bubbled through 2019 looks set to define product strategy in 2020.
The kicker will be to what extent consumers weigh the environmental and moral valency of not eating meat against participating in a market whose existence is built on systemic exploitation of workers, animals, and laws in the name of profit, whose structural inequalities disenfranchise and marginalise communities that then turn to those companies, and their spaces, for essential, genuine refuge. As more and more food companies sow their moral credentials into 2020, it’s necessary to question what, and how they reap.