Vegetarians and animal rights activists who condemned Burger King in hundreds of protests last year returned to the home of the Whopper on Tuesday to celebrate having it their way.

"We're sending our activists to Burger King again this year, but this time it's for lunch," said Kristie Phelps of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The reason is the one-time enemy's new "BK Veggie" burger, which PETA trumpets as the first vegetarian burger offered by a major fast-food burger chain.

It means Burger King customers not only can ask to hold the pickles or the lettuce, but they can ask to hold the beef too.

"We think going vegetarian is the best thing people can do and Burger King has made that easier," said Phelps of Norfolk, Va., one of PETA's self-described "sexy, vegetarian, Lettuce Ladies" who handed out free veggie burgers Tuesday at the newest Reno store.

She and Brandi Valladolid of Norfolk wore green bikini outfits with mock-lettuce leaves and waved signs at honking traffic to help PETA kick off a West Coast campaign that takes them next to Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles.

"Real lettuce wilts too fast," Valladolid explained as rain fell and windy conditions made it feel colder than the 60 degrees at the lunchtime rally.

"Even if it was 20 degrees, it's nothing like what the animals go through in slaughter," Phelps said.

PETA conducted a similar rally at a Burger King near corporate headquarters in Miami last month shortly after the new product was announced, handing out 200 free vegetarian burgers in an hour.

"Launching a mean, lean and green veggie burger puts Burger King ahead of its fast-food competition," said Phelps, who estimated PETA held nearly 1,000 anti-Burger King demonstrations over the past two years.

Burger King officials welcome the publicity.

"They called and they said they were doing a West Coast tour and I thought it was sort of cool," said Ken Johnson, director of operations for 12 Burger King restaurants in northern Nevada.

"After all, our first name is `Burger,"' he said. "For them to support what we are trying to do is definitely beneficial."

The flame-broiled, soy-free patty offers a blend of vegetables, grains and spices on a sesame seed bun. Topped with reduced fat mayonnaise, lettuce and tomatoes, the burger provides a leaner fast-food alternative — only 10 grams of fat and 330 calories. A Whopper has 39 grams of fat and 680 calories.

A few Reno customers specifically refused the free offer Tuesday. But Ranson Roser of Reno, a self-described "meat guy," gave his first taste a thumbs up.

"I only eat meat on pizzas. My wife can't get me to eat my vegetables but this is really good. It was worth the experiment," he said.

Jason Erickson of Reno, who said he's a "fan of veggie burgers," said he liked the new sandwich "because it doesn't try to imitate meat. It tries to be its own meal."

The veggie burger debuted at all 8,500 Burger King restaurants in the United States in March. It has been available for some time in Canada and other countries.

A company employee for 25 years, Johnson admits he was suspect of the veggie burger at first.

"But I tried it, I liked it, it's good. That is what matters in our opinion. It would be one thing if we only sold two a day.

"But we're selling 40 to 50 a day" since the new burger debuted about a month ago, he said.

"It does better in some restaurants than others," particularly those with more urban populations, he said.

"For example, we have a restaurant in Winnemucca. Winnemucca is not a big vegetarian town."