Ruby Tuesday to put Nestlé's plant-based Awesome Burger on its menu

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Casual dining chain Ruby Tuesday Inc said on Thursday it will test selling a plant-based burger from Nestlé SA-owned NESN.S Sweet Earth Foods, Nestlé's first national restaurant deal for its Awesome Burger.

Ruby Tuesday’s said it will offer the burger at its approximately 450 U.S. restaurants through mid-March and then decide whether to make it a permanent addition to its menu.

Priced at $5 on Friday - and $10.99 thereafter - at the restaurants, the Awesome Burger is made from yellow pea protein.

Ruby Tuesday usually charges $8.99 for its classic hamburger. Nestlé began selling Awesome Burger patties in retail stores in October.

Sweet Earth joins Beyond Meat Inc BYND.O and Impossible Foods Inc in an increasingly competitive race to get their branded vegan proteins sold in well-known nationwide restaurant chains. But unlike its stand-alone rivals, Sweet Earth can dip into Nestlé's deep pockets and network of retailers, food service companies and ingredient suppliers as the world's largest food company.

Sweet Earth is in discussions with “many other” local, regional and national food service operators to put the Awesome Burger on menus, according to Fleur Veldhoven, vice president of food marketing at Nestlé Professional. She would not reveal the identity of future potential restaurant partners.

Some other chains are already selling the patty, though they have not used the Awesome Burger branding on menus, Nestlé said. Nestle decline to disclose those client names.

Ruby Tuesday has struggled in recent years amid industry declines in foot traffic, particularly at full-service restaurants. It closed at least 118 stores from 2017 through 2019 and the chain’s U.S. sales dropped by 13% to $721 million in 2018, according to consulting and research firm Technomic Inc.

The formerly public company was sold to private equity firm NRD Capital in 2017.

Ruby Tuesday’s corporate executive chef Carl Bertka told Reuters that the restaurant chose the Awesome Burger over competing plant-based patties in part because it can be cooked from frozen, which gives it a longer shelf life, limits waste and makes execution easier.

It can also be cooked using many different methods and is harder to overcook than some rival patties, and the texture and taste were appealing, he said.

Sweet Earth also sells a slightly different Awesome Burger and Awesome Grounds designed for retail consumers, which have “been doing great” and are expanding nationally since launch in October, Veldhoven said.

Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Leslie Adler