Buying shares of Beyond Meat (NASDAQ:BYND) or McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) is a way to invest in an American classic: the burger. About 55% of consumers eat burgers either at home or out at least once a week, according to Technomic's report on burger consumer trends. So investing in makers of this popular meal can be a good idea.

Beyond Meat is a market leader in plant-based meat alternatives and is especially known for its burger -- the Beyond Burger. The 11-year-old company says its best-known product "looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef" -- but it's made of plant-based proteins. Beyond Meat sells its products to restaurants, as well as directly to consumers through grocery stores.

We probably all know McDonald's, the 65-year-old fast-food giant whose famous golden arches sit atop nearly 40,000 restaurants worldwide. McDonald's specializes in the traditional meat-based burger and offers dine-in and takeout/drive-thru.

Which company represents a better way to bet on the burger right now? Let's take a closer look.

A Beyond Meat burger sits on a countertop

Image source: Beyond Meat.

The case for Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat has taken investors for a wild -- but mostly profitable -- stock market ride since its initial public offering a year ago. The company's shares soared 160% on the day of its market debut last May, then skyrocketed to a peak of about $234 a share two months later. Though the shares are now down 43% from that level, they've climbed about 80% so far this year to trade at about $136 a share.

Some of the gains are justified. Beyond Meat has been increasing revenue by triple-digit percentages, rapidly growing sales to retail outlets such as supermarkets and foodservice providers like restaurants. First-quarter net revenue jumped 141% year over year to more than $97 million, and sales to U.S. retailers and foodservice providers soared almost 160%.

Amid this growth, Beyond Meat continues to invest heavily in research and development (R&D). The company's R&D costs rose 38% in the quarter, compared with the year-earlier period, and total operating expenses more than doubled.

While it's positive to invest in product development, maintaining pricing power over time to compensate for those earlier expenses is important. Beyond Meat faces a growing number of competitors, including industry giant Tyson Foods and private company Impossible Foods. The question now is whether Beyond Meat will be able to maintain pricing power and market leadership.

As for the coronavirus outbreak, Beyond Meat saw a "meaningful slowdown" in late March in its foodservice business and withdrew guidance as the crisis unfolded.

A McDonald's Quarter Pounder with cheese is shown in a product image

Image source: McDonald's.

The case for McDonald's

McDonald's shares have slipped 7% so far in 2020 but are down more than 15% from mid-February highs amid the coronavirus crisis. The temporary shuttering of some restaurants and the limits of only offering drive-thru and delivery service because of stay-at-home orders around the world slowed business beginning in the second half of March. As a result, first-quarter global comparable sales fell by 3.4%. Like Beyond Meat, McDonald's withdrew guidance pending more clarity on the impact of the crisis.

Let's have a look at how McDonald's was doing prior to the outbreak. As an older, established company, McDonald's is unlikely to deliver the triple-digit sales gains that we see at Beyond Meat, a newer business with more opportunities for significant growth. McDonald's reached a peak in annual revenue in 2014, then saw sales slip amid competition from popular fast-casual chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill and competitors with more of an upscale burger like Five Guys.

Still, things may be starting to stabilize for McDonald's. In 2017, it launched its Velocity Growth Plan, an effort to retain and regain customers. The focus is on traditional areas of strength such as breakfast, improving food quality, and converting occasional customers to regulars with new product offerings like snacks and specialty coffee.

In 2019, McDonald's reported global comparable-sales growth of 5.9% for the full year, its highest in more than a decade. Consolidated revenue totaled about $21 billion, growing 3% on a constant-currency basis. And in the first two months of 2020, McDonald's said global comparable sales rose 7.2%.

So which company is a better buy today?

We can expect trying times for McDonald's until the coronavirus crisis has passed. Beyond Meat may fare somewhat better as it has the advantage of selling its products in grocery stores (which remain open), as well as through restaurants that provide carryout and delivery. That could buoy overall revenue, even if foodservice sales suffer.

In spite of Beyond Meat's strong growth and expansion, though, I think the shares have risen too far too fast. With more and more competing products on the market, it may be difficult for Beyond Meat to maintain and increase prices in the long term. Considering the company's heavy investments in R&D so far, that could be a problem for Beyond Meat farther down the road. Still, with any good news in the near term, the shares may continue gains -- they've already surpassed Wall Street's average estimate by nearly 70%. For a short-term investor with risk tolerance, Beyond Meat does seem to present a good choice.

But Foolish stock investors know its best to focus on the long-term prospects of a company, and that's why McDonald's is the better buy. The stock is trading at about 23 times trailing 12-month earnings. That's close to its lowest in more than a year and offers a discount opportunity. Beyond Meat is relatively new as a publicly traded company so a more useful gauge of the stock's trading value is the company's forward P/E ratio, which stands at 714.3 and suggests the stock is priced at a very high premium right now.

Be prepared for more share and earnings weakness from McDonald's in the short term, but the gains in revenue last year and in the first two months of this year, as well as the company's ongoing growth plan, suggest an optimistic future for this storied restaurant chain.