Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returnsto Industry City on November 2–3, 2018 and you can get $20 off the regular admission price while our early bird special lasts.
In New York, the introduction of meaty yet meatless burgers—like the famously “bloody” vegan burger from the California-based company Impossible Foods, which landed with great fanfare on the menu at David Chang’s Chelsea restaurant Momofuku Nishi in summer of 2016—was perhaps seen more as a press stunt than as a paradigm shift. At a press event I attended at the time, Chang was on hand, as was the beloved food scientist Harold McGee and the Impossible burger’s founder, Dr. Patrick Brown. White-shirted waiters ferried paper boats of the burgers, stuck with perky flags bearing the Momofuku logo, and fries to a room full of near-rabid reporters.
The burger was remarkable: truly meaty in texture and taste—satisfyingly for some, unnervingly for others—though made entirely from plant-based ingredients. We delivered enthusiastic coverage of it and then, like so many press stunts, the spectacle of the meatless meat burger quickly faded into the background for most.
But the Impossible burger remains on the menu at Momofuku Nishi. It’s listed on the lunch menu beneath an authentically meaty “Italian Dip” brisket sandwich, and it’s served, for a cool $18 (same as the brisket), with lettuce, tomato, pickles, a special sauce and a side of fries. Two years after it appeared on the scene, the burger is in high demand: The menu cautions that only a limited amount are available daily, on a first come, first serve basis.
But those who arrive too late at Nishi can increasingly find the Impossible burger—or the other “meatless” burger on the market, from Beyond Meat—at restaurants, burger joints, and retailers around New York. And wherever they appear, they consistently sell and sell out. And restaurateurs are hardly skeptical; instead, they’re eager to be able to offer another option to a customers who are ever more curious about and aware of what they’re eating.
Burger Village, which has three restaurants in New York and Long Island, started serving the Impossible burger in November of 2017, after spending nine months campaigning for it from the chain’s distributor. It’s been hugely popular at all three locations, said Burger Village’s CEO, Nick Yadav. His restaurants (like many that offer either the Impossible burger or the Beyond Meat burger) hang a poster advertising the Impossible burger in the stores’ windows; some customers come to Burger Village specifically because they know the Impossible burger is served there.
“People have definitely loved it,” he said. “The texture is just like meat. It’s a great option for someone who is trying to switch their diet from meat[-inclusive] to vegan.” Burger Village offers the burger as a straight “hamburger” for $13; for $3 more, you can upgrade to the “I M Possible” special, with pepper jack, sautéed onions and mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, jalapeños and “signature sauce.” One couple, he said, liked the burger so much they ordered five of them. Yadav is so impressed with the burger’s success that he is now trying to get the Beyond Meat burger—which, unlike the Impossible burger, is gluten-free—from distributors as well.
One couple, he said, liked the burger so much they ordered five of them.
Burger Village specializes in burgers made from “exotic” meats like elk and and wild boar, but also offer more traditional bean-based veggie burgers. He doesn’t see meatless burgers outperforming their meaty counterparts—at least not yet. “We’re not a vegan burger joint. We’re an organic burger joint. But this product is moving,” he said. “And eventually I can see it going that way.”
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat explicitly market to meat-eaters, not vegans or vegetarians. Beyond Meat even distributes their products through meat distributors and in the meat cases at grocery stores like Whole Foods, Wegman’s, Stop & Shop and the Park Slope Food Coop. Michaela Grob, owner of the vegan cheese shop Riverdel in Prospect Heights, acknowledges the irony of a Pat LaFrieda truck pulling up in front of the shop to deliver her shipment of Impossible burgers, which she serves as a vegan cheeseburger at the shop’s sandwich counter. And at the moment, both burgers are sold at wholesale for approximately the same price as premium ground beef; Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat aim to underprice ground beef within the next few years. (“That’s where things will get interesting,” said Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat’s CEO.)
Some might have wondered if these companies were overly confident to take aim at the obsessively made, eaten and loved beef burger, a real lodestar of the American diet. Total revolt and lambasting wouldn’t have been out of the question. Instead, people are happily putting their money behind the burgers. And aiming for beef in particular was part of the companies’ missions: On one hand, production of beef is one the most environmentally costly farming practices we pursue; it’s not unusual to hear someone say they’re trying to eat less red meat. On the other hand, beef is so culturally embedded (and emotionally consumed) that to eclipse it entirely seems, frankly, impossible. “When we first launched in the meat case at conventional grocery stores in 2017, my hope was just not to get thrown out,” said Brown. Yet, according to Brown, Beyond Meat is outselling beef, turkey and bison burgers in “a major national chain’s Southern California region.”
As Tina Chau, chef and owner of Amituofo Vegan Cuisine in Bushwick, said, it’s easier for consumers to consider adhering to a plant-based diet if they know there are options that are delicious, familiar and satisfying.
“Most of our customers are not vegan, not vegetarian,” she said, an observation that aligns with a study done by Impossible Foods in 2017, which found that 70 percent of Impossible burger-eaters also eat meat. “I think for the most part [people] want to eat more plant-based meals. But they’re still craving that burger.”
Chau serves a number of mock meats, including a General Tso’s “chicken,” soy “duck,” and the Impossible burger. The Impossible burger has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in January of 2018, and Chau knew she would offer it as soon as she tried it for herself. A vegan for years, she said she no longer craves “meaty” foods—the textures, the tastes, the smells. But the Impossible burger is “really, really delicious,” she said.
Grob, of Riverdel, similarly argued that vegan food isn’t just for vegans, and said that it’s a misconception that vegans and vegetarians eat and like to eat only vegetables. Many vegans, she said, are vegan not because they don’t like meat but because they don’t want to support the meat industry. She wasn’t wed to the idea of a burger on the menu, but her customers love the Impossible burger. “We have a lot of regulars who just want a burger,” she said. Vegan, vegetarian or otherwise, “a lot of people don’t assign a label to it—it’s just good food.”
This is one of the most compelling points in the burgers’ favor: They’re not only strikingly close in taste and texture to the real deal, they’re also clear in both origin (plants) and mission (the health of the eater and the environment). As Hannah Goldfield writes in the New Yorker, “If I were presented with the choice of a burger made with cheap beef—probably inhumanely raised, definitely bad for the environment—or a plant-based alternative that tasted this close to the real thing, I’d go for the Impossible burger.”
Said Chau, “It’s kind of like, why not? You feel good, you’re doing a good thing, you know?”
Photos courtesy of Impossible Foods.