Everybody enjoys a hearty meal, and the food and beverage industry remains an essential pillar of the economy. There is a wide variety of choice when it comes to meals, but recent shifts in lifestyle habits and beliefs have led to a new movement -- that of plant-based diets. Beyond Meat (NASDAQ:BYND) is one of the pioneers of this movement and is at the forefront of plant-based meat technology. Restaurant Brands International (NYSE:QSR), or RBI, on the other hand, sells old-fashioned fast food in its brick-and-mortar restaurants, with famous brands such as Tim Hortons, Burger King, and Popeyes.

Beyond Meat went public May 2, 2019, at $25 a share. It's up nearly six-fold in just over a year at $144 and is shaping up to be one of the strongest growth stocks in the food and beverage space. RBI's total share price gain over the last five years has been more pedestrian, at just 47%.

Comparing the two, which will make a better buy today?

Beef burger beside fries on a wooden platter

Image source: Getty Images.

Shifting tastes and preferences

In recent years, a new movement has emerged that emphasizes healthier meals and lifestyles. This trend has led to a strong increase in demand for everything from gym sessions and yoga workshops to poke bowls and plant-based diets. This evolution has led to the sprouting up of plant-based meat outfits such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. These businesses have created plant-based alternatives to red meat that taste and even bleed like the real thing.

Although there is no hard evidence that a plant-based beef burger is healthier than a meat-based one, there's no doubt that switching to plant-based products can help the environment. Beef production requires significantly more land and water compared to plant cultivation. The conservation movement has gained momentum in recent years too, spearheaded by climate activist Greta Thunberg, who is pushing for nations to honor their climate commitments. 

All these trends have resulted in Beyond Meat gaining a level of recognition and popularity that no one would have expected just a decade ago.

Brick-and-mortar may continue to suffer

Financials-wise, RBI is certainly the heavyweight here. The fast food veteran recorded total revenue of $1.2 billion in the first quarter of the fiscal year 2020, while Beyond Meat's revenue is barely hitting $100 million. However, RBI's revenue saw a 3.2% year-over-year decline, while Beyond Meat's revenue soared by 141% year over year.

RBI owns a stable of well-known and well-loved fast food brands, and the company has built up a track record of growth across global markets. Beyond Meat is gaining swift recognition with its innovative plant-based products, but still gives the impression of being more of a niche alternative product rather than existing in mainstream consciousness.

COVID-19, though, may throw a big spanner in RBI's growth plans. Brick-and-mortar restaurants have been hard hit by lockdowns and social distancing measures, and even after the pandemic recedes, there may be new requirements for dining establishments to reconfigure their spaces to provide customers with peace of mind. Reusable masks, rubber gloves, and acrylic shields may become the norm once dining in is allowed, and this may increase overall costs for the company while putting a limit on seating capacity.

Fast food's declining popularity

Fast food saw its rapid ascent during the 80s and 90s as Americans began living busier lives and desired quick, convenient meal options. However, the best days of the fast food restaurant concept may well be over, with more awareness in the media and among the public of the negative effects of eating fast food.

For instance, the American Cancer Society lists red meat as one of the five leading causes of cancer. Such evidence will, over time, dampen demand for this category of food and push people toward healthier alternatives.

In the right place at the right time

The choice seems clear. Although RBI still owns a strong portfolio of brands, fast food just doesn't have the same level of appeal as it did a few decades ago. Beyond Meat is touted to be healthier and more environmentally friendly, and has much more potential for growth. The company just recently sealed a deal with Sinodis to distribute its products to around 4,500 customers in China.

A word of caution on valuation, though. Beyond Meat just registered a small quarterly net income of $1.8 million in its latest fiscal quarter, turning around from a net loss of $6.6 million during the same period last year. On a price-earnings basis, the valuation would seem excessive. However, with solid growth momentum and significant expansion in the gross profit margin from 26.8% to 38.8% in just one year , Beyond Meat has the potential to continue posting stellar financial numbers in the years to come.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.