The rival chains are in a war of words, with Mad Mex’s founder calling Guzman “irresponsible” and “upsetting” over its reported stance on fake meat.
It’s a meat-free Mexican standoff.
Food rivals Mad Mex and Guzman Y Gomez are locked in war of words over vegan options.
Talking to news.com.au, Mad Mex founder and chief executive officer Clovis Young has accused his competitor of being “irresponsible” and “reactionary” after Guzman’s head honcho was reported as saying plant-based alternatives to meat were a “fad” and “disgusting”.
Mr Young speculated Guzman Y Gomez had failed to bring out a plant-based option due to the higher cost involved.
But Guzman’s founder Steven Marks has said he was a “huge fan” of non-meat meat and the brand was in the process of bringing out its own plant-based option “in the coming months”.
Guzman Y Gomez and Mad Mex are respectively the number two and three Mexican-themed quick service food chains in Australia. Stores-wise, Zambrero has the most outlets across Australia.
The bread and butter of all the chains is a choice of burritos, tacos and quesadillas filled with pork, beef or chicken.
For some time, the chains have had also vegetarian options, mostly swapping out meat for veggies or tofu.
Recently however, plant based meat, disparagingly called “fake meat”, has grabbed attention due to the soaring popularity of products such as the Beyond Burger and Hungry Jack’s Rebel Whopper which the firm claims “tastes just like our classic Whopper”.
Guzman founder: “I think it’s disgusting”
But in late March, theSydney Morning Heraldreported that Mr Marks had said Guzman would “never offer” a fake meat option.
“I think it’s disgusting,” Mr Marks was quoted as saying.
“I don’t even like the way it tastes.”
He added that: “it’s a fad in my opinion”.
“If you want to eat vegetables, eat vegetables, if you want to eat less meat, have less meat.”
That came as a surprise to Mad Mex’s Mr Young. His chain has had a spicy vegan chicken option on the menu for two years and he told news.com.au it was going gangbusters.
“We’ve had customers ring us up asking ‘Are you sure this isn’t real chicken’. That’s a testament to the quality.”
The spicy vegan chicken is made from soy protein and produced for Mad Mex by Simplot Australia, the company behind Birds Eye and Leggo.
Mr Young said Mad Mex tried 50 different plant based proteins before they settled on the Simplot product.
“And some of them were really terrible. The first generation it not always that good – think of the internet with a 56k modem or the first Teslas.
“But this one tastes as good as or better than chicken.”
The Mad Mex founder said meat-free options had gone from 6 per cent to 15 per cent of total sales in five years. He expected meat-free sales to double to 30 per cent of the menu, spurred on by meat-like options.
Mad Mex: Fake meat comments “irresponsible”
Mr Young said he was “upset” when he read his rival’s comments.
“It’s naive and a bit irresponsible to say that the product tastes disgusting – it’s factually untrue,” he said.
“With the kind of microphone that people have, it’s important not to discourage this movement around how we consume products for the environment and for our health.
“We can’t eat the way we’ve eaten for the last 30 years, the environment just simply can’t handle it so we have a moral obligation to lead from the front by providing great products and inspiring people to make these subtle changes.”
The production of beef in particular is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions with 60 kilograms of emissions per kilogram of resulting beef.
Around 14 per cent of worldwide emissions come from the meat and dairy industry, chiefly through methane from animals.
“I was frustrated (by Mr Marks’ comments). It seemed to me a little bit reactionary,” said Mr Clovis.
“I suspect it had to do with the cost in the margins. I suspect it’s got more to do with economics and less to do with the reality (of the taste).”
Mad Mex acknowledged fake meat is pricier, charging customers $1 extra for its spicy meat-free chicken.
Guzman hits back about fake meat claims
But Guzman’s Mr Marks told news.com.au that his comments in the SMH referred to a “specific plant based brand which is highly processed and contains ingredients Guzman Y Gomez (GYG) would never allow in our menu”.
He said his “fad” comment was about the same product, not all plant based proteins, although the article refers to “fake meat” in general, not a particular brand of fake meat.
“Anyone who knows GYG and me knows that we believe in plant-based menu items. I’ve been saying for years that people should eat less meat and more vegetables,” said Mr Marks.
“Not all suppliers can meet our requirements, especially in the plant-based space, but I’m a huge fan of many plant-based products.”
Guzman diners can order their various enchiladas and tacos with a spicy tofu or sauteed vegetables filling. And soon, Mr Marks said, plant protein too.
“GYG have a new plant-based filling which we’re launching in the next couple of months.
“It’s delicious and we have been working on it for over a year to ensure it’s perfect for our guests.”
Mr Marks denied the higher price of a vegan option was why the fake meat filling was not already on the menu.
“We have never compromised on the quality of our food so cost never comes into it. For GYG, it’s about taste and quality.”
Americans bring Mexican food to Australia
The two Mexican chains may have been born in Australia, but their founders both hail from the US.
Mr Young, from San Diego, said he always associated beaches with burritos. After a trip to Sydney’s Bondi Beach with a friend in 2005, he went searching for the Mexican meal only to be left underwhelmed. So he started his own chain.
“I used to joke that Mad Max was on a humanitarian mission, trying to bring decent Mexican food to a culture where people were eating nothing but Thai food.”
Mr Clovis said the key to good Mexican food was the chillies. He said he was proud of two new hot sauces that customers can slather over their tacos.
“Mexicans come and here and go, ‘God damn that’s good’.”
Mad Mex expanding after growth pause
Not that it’s been all plain sailing for Mad Mex, which is now owned by Singapore fast food firm 4 Fingers.
It has fewer stores than Guzman Y Gomez which now boasts a slew of former McDonald’s executives on its board. That chain is now valued at almost $1 billion.
Indeed, Mad Mex pulled out of Adelaide and is in no hurry to head to Darwin.
“We tried to operate there for two years and we found the logistics too hard taking product from Melbourne to Adelaide,” he said.
“We actually stopped growing for a while and went back and did a whole brand refresh.”
But it was now opening more locations, he said, including one at Melbourne’s Westfield Doncaster shopping centre this week.
Mr Clovis said the brand was looking to grow by 20 to 25 per cent over the coming year and to go from 60 to around 100 stores.
But why should tortilla tragics choose his store over Guzman Y Gomez?
“Ultimately it’s down to flavour and taste,” he said.
And maybe a bit of fake meat as well.