Strategy: White Castle is going all out to lure millennials and teens — and McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC should be scared

Attendees of Impossible Food's launch party dance at a White Castle in Brooklyn, New York, April 11, 2018.

White Castle is now home to Impossible Foods' meatless burger. To celebrate, the startup threw a party with Questlove, Eric Wareheim, and Ghostface Killah.

"If you’re in a White Castle, say 'hell yeah!'" Dennis Coles, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, bellowed into the mic.

"Hell yeah!" replied the crowd of mostly 20-somethings cramped inside the New York City establishment. Young passers-by pressed their faces against the windows to watch.

"Impossible Burger, turn up!" Coles then said, followed by a bullhorn sound from the DJ behind him.

This was no ordinary evening at the Brooklyn White Castle. Coles — better known by his stage name Ghostface Killah — was performing at a launch party for a plant-based burger by the meatless startup Impossible Foods, which debuted its slider at 140 White Castle locations in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois on Thursday.

For one night only, the rapper, along with fellow Wu-Tang member Cappadonna, famed musician Questlove, and comic Eric Wareheim, turned the White Castle into a club — complete with unlimited Impossible sliders, boozy ice cream, and cocktails made from fountain soda.

White Castle’s partnership with Impossible Foods may seem like an unlikely match, since the startup's burger was only available in higher-end restaurants. But the fast-food chain is making a move to attract millennials and teens, two coveted demographics for the fast-food industry.

Other chains, like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC, have made similar efforts to appeal to younger customers — but to limited success. A growing number of millennials and teens, however, seem to be turning to meat-free, healthier alternatives to traditional fast food, and Impossible Foods is capitalizing on that.

Here's what it was like inside Impossible’s wild party at White Castle.

Impossible Foods held its launch party at a White Castle in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 11.

To start the night off, Questlove (a percussionist for The Roots) DJed.

New and old-school hits from Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Beyoncé, N.W.A., and David Bowie boomed from the speakers.

Ghostface Killah later performed, and everyone got down.

In the back area usually reserved for employees, there was also a Polaroid-style photo booth.

Throughout the night, White Castle employees served three types of cocktails inspired by fountain soda …

… and cups of ice cream infused with walnut liquor and topped with French parsley.

They also came around with trays of unlimited Impossible sliders, onion rings, and fries.

Instead of beef, Impossible’s burgers contain heme (the molecule that gives beef its reddish color and metallic flavor), textured wheat protein, and coconut oil, among other ingredients.

Young Americans appear to be jumping on-board with meatless foods, and Impossible seems to be capitalizing on that.

As BI previously reported, Generation Z (i.e. those born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s) is creating a $5 billion market for fake meat and seafood.

In 2015, the market-research firm Y-Pulse conducted a survey of college and university food-service operators. It found "plant-based menus" and "sustainable seafood" were two trends their youngest students wanted the most.

White Castle also seems to be taking notice.

While White Castle's customers span across generations, CMO Kim Bartley said that Generations Y and Z are important demographics, because they drive food trends.

"We like to stay ahead of trends before they become too mainstream," she told BI.

At the party, the two companies invited big-name celebrities who are popular with millennials and teens.

People chatted and took selfies with Wareheim, a comic best known for playing himself in the surrealist Adult Swim show "Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories" and as Arnold in the Netflix series "Master of None."

In a recent op-ed, The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig pegged Wareheim’s comedy as the epitome of “millennial humor,” which she described as weird, dark, and random.

Wareheim told BI he wanted to host the party because he often ate “succulent sliders” at this White Castle location with collaborator Tim Heidecker in the late 1990s.

"We would have $10 to spend — $5 on malt liquor and $5 on burgers," he said.

When asked whether he thinks plant-based meat will become a big thing, Wareheim said, "It’ll eventually become the only thing once we exhaust our planet of its resources."

Impossible Foods and other plant-based food startups bill their products as an environmentally-friendly alternative to meat, arguing their processes require much less land and water.

White Castle's partnership with Impossible Foods may give the fast-food chain an edge on other traditional fast-food giants, which have struggled to appeal to younger customers.

In 2017, McDonald's received some backlash from social-media users when it launched a burger with sriracha and kale, a move some read as a desperate attempt by the chain to attract millennials.

Burger King has also seen a 5% decline in traffic from low-income millennials and a 16% drop in traffic from high-income millennials in the past decade, according to Forbes. And KFC data indicates that only two out of five millennials have ever eaten at the chain.

Research suggests that millennials are attracted to options that appear healthier as well.

The Organic Trade Association finds over 50% of organic consumers are millennials and teens, who eat 50% more veggies than previous generations.

The Impossible sliders can "make meat-eaters feel better about their fast-food choices," Bartley said.

Impossible Foods is just one of several companies pursuing the growing plant-based foods market.

According to recent Nielsen data, the plant-based foods sector grew more than 8% in 2017.

Impossible’s leading competitor, Beyond Meat, has raised $72 million and sells plant-based chicken, burgers, and sausage primarily in grocery stores. Founded in 2011, Impossible Foods has raised $387.5 million in venture capital to date.

The main challenges for these startups have been refining their products and driving costs down.

Until recently, the three-ounce Impossible Burger was only available at select restaurants for over $10.

But at White Castle, the two-ounce Impossible slider costs $1.99, making it more accessible.

David Lee, COO of Impossible Foods, said that the company hopes to expand to every White Castle in the US.

“We don’t want to just be the McDonald’s for the next generation,” he told BI. “We want to wherever the meat-eaters want to be served.”

Before Questlove closed with another DJ set, Lee listed the environmental benefits of the Impossible sliders.

"Our burgers require 95% land and emit 87% less CO2 than normal burgers," he said, mic in hand.

In response, a young woman with an oversized furry jacket screamed "Wooooo!"

Reporting by Leanna Garfield; Photography by Sarah Jacobs

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