Swedish burgers win meat-reducing plaudits, but Brits get a grilling

Tale of two burger joints with wildly different takes on the meat-reducing message highlights support for companies that choose the greener path

Three cartoon burgers in a rows, on brown background

With Veganuary having drawn to a close, leaving many people healthier and better informed about the reasons so many of us are choosing to eat less meat, two burger businesses have been demonstrating respectively how to be on the right side and the wrong side of the meat-reducing issue.

The two companies – one Swedish, the other British – have taken wildly different paths in recent weeks in response to the growing appetite for meat free eating, which poses an existential challenge to meat-heavy fast food ventures.

While the Swedish burger chain, Max, decided last month to quintuple the amount of vegetarian food it offers across its 120 restaurants, and also to add a wholly vegan burger to the menu, Britain-based Gourmet Burger Kitchen launched an anti-vegetarian advertising campaign that saw it alienate diners of all culinary persuasions.

Established in 1968, Max is Sweden’s oldest and most popular burger chain, routinely outperforming McDonald’s and Burger King. Inasmuch as a burger chain can be environmentally friendly, it has striven to be so – labelling products with their individual climate impact, and planting trees to carbon offset its total climate impact.

Explaining Max’s ‘s decision to offer more meat free fare, its president, Richard Bergfors, said: “Meat consumption is one of today’s great climatic challenges, so it is important for us to be able to offer a really good and climate-friendly alternative. We know that it would be good for both the environment and health if people ate less red meat. So we are taking the next step and quintupling the amount of vegetarian food we offer.”

While Max clearly got the memo – that meat-reducing is growing in popularity and meat-reducers are a demographic to court and cultivate – Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) made a huge error of judgment in greenlighting a series of adverts poking fun at meat free eaters. The adverts, which were shown across the London Tube network last month, included a picture of a cow with the caption “They eat grass, so you don’t have to”, a picture of some lettuce with the tagline “Anyone fancy a nice juicy 6oz lettuce? Nah, nor do we” and pictures of a GBK burger and a GBK till receipt with the taglines “Vegetarians, resistance is futile” and “You’ll always remember when you gave up being a vegetarian”.

If GBK was seeking to create a splash with its campaign then it succeeded – albeit for the wrong reasons. Meat-eaters and meat-reducers alike piled in to criticise the company for its “flippant” campaign. Complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority, social media exploded and the Twitter hashtag #gourmetmurderkitchen began to fly around cyberspace.

The negative backlash was such that the company was forced to issue an apology. It wrote on its Facebook page that it had been “quite taken aback” by the response to its campaign, which it said was “lighthearted and not meant to cause offence”. However, it said it only intended to take down “some” of the adverts, which triggered even more criticism. One Facebook user wrote: “This is the same patronising tone, and the same lack of understanding, that your mindless, childish, bullying advertising campaign employed in the first place.”

Another pointed out that the campaign was at odds with GBK’s attempts to court vegetarian customers: “If you were a meat-only restaurant I would understand jumping on the veggie-hating bandwagon to appeal to your meat-loving customers, but seeing as you provide veggie options this ad campaign was very silly and puzzling to me.”