Impossible Foods has been around since 2011. But it wasn’t until April of this year that the company struck gold when Burger King began a single-city test of a Whopper featuring Impossible’s plant-based meat patty. Customers loved it, and within weeks, the chain announced it would roll out the Impossible Whopper to its 7,300 locations nationwide.
The publicity was overwhelming, and other restaurants, including Red Robin, Little Caesar’s, Applebee’s and Hard Rock Cafe, quickly jumped on the faux burger bandwagon. By June, Impossible, facing a product shortage, hired additional employees and doubled its manufacturing schedule to meet the growing demand.
The Impossible meat patty includes leghemoglobin (or “heme”), an iron-containing molecule that comes from soybeans. It makes the burgers look and “bleed” like real beef. Because the Impossible patty is flame-grilled, just like the original Whopper, when covered with all the fixings and served on a sesame seed bun the average consumer would have a tough time distinguishing it from the chain’s all-beef offering. Burger King’s chief marketing officer has said that in company tests, even employees couldn’t tell the difference.
Beyond Meat, Impossible’s nearest competitor, is available at Dunkin’, Del Taco, Subway and Carl’s Jr. The Beyond Meat patty is made from pea protein and relies on beet juice for the look of the real thing. The company recently made headlines when KFC tested the plant-based “Beyond chicken” at a single Atlanta location. A line of faux-chicken-craving customers formed outside the store, which sold out completely within five hours.
Besties Vegan Paradise
Since opening in January, business has been good for Besties Vegan Paradise in Los Angeles, the nation’s only vegan convenience store and market. Although plant-based meats are available from large producers, such as Kellogg’s Morningstar Farms, Hormel and Tyson, the small store chose to support local and women-owned businesses.
“We opened with a good selection of plant-based meats,” said Alison Shead, one of the store’s three owners. “We want to give our customers more options. Not everybody has the same tastes.”
Besties has strict requirements for any product it sells. “First, the manufacturer must be making only vegan plant-based products,” said Shead. “They can’t make anything with animal products in it, such as cheese with real dairy or something with real meat. That gives us a more narrow selection to choose from.”
Don’t look for Arby’s to sell faux meat. Rob Lynch, Arby’s president, has said that “won’t happen on my watch. The only way would be if I got fired for some reason.”
To get that point across, Arby’s invented the “marrot,” a “megetable" made from meat that looks like a raw carrot and reportedly tastes like one, too. The goal of the fake carrot prank was publicity, so don’t expect to see the marrot on Arby’s menu.
Arby’s sells 160 million pounds of meat annually and is an equal-opportunity animal purveyor with offerings of roast beef, brisket, turkey, ham, chicken, lamb, duck, fish, deer, elk and more.
Besties doesn’t carry products tested on animals, which eliminated Beyond Meat, but it does carry Impossible Burger’s ground beef and 2.0 burgers. Other offerings are vegan buffalo wings and honey barbeque wings from Clean South of Los Angeles and sausages and pulled pork produced by No Evil Foods in Asheville, North Carolina.
Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis uses wheat to create a vegan ribeye steak that is popular with customers. “People definitely come here for that,” Shead said. “It’s not available at Whole Foods or other stores with vegan products.”
Just like a 7-Eleven or QuikTrip, Besties has roller grills whirling away, but instead of all-beef franks, the store offers soybean hot dogs from Be Leaf of California and Yeah Dawg, a New York manufacturer that makes weiners from lentils, carrots, potatoes and beans “like an old school veggie burger,” Shead said. “We offer a chili cheese dog. One of our local vegan businesses cooks the chili and cheese for us.”
Of course, a top Besties’ requirement is that everything sold must taste good, she added. “There are vegan products that we don’t like. And we want our products to be useful for our customers.”
Most of Besties’ customers are not vegan, said Shead, but that’s no surprise to David Portalatin, vice president and food industry advisor for The NDP Group. “The plant-based movement is not about being anti-animal protein, and 16% of consumers today regularly consume plant-based alternatives,” Portalatin said. “Of these, 86% do not identify as vegan or vegetarian. This trend is all about seeking healthier options for including protein in your diet. Most people that eat an Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat Burger also eat beef burgers.”
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture produces 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions. In addition to good health promises, both companies plug the environmental benefits of abstaining from meat. However, skeptical environmental researchers say non-processed plant diets are better and emit less carbon than processed plant-based products.
Recent Nielsen research found that only about 5% of U.S. households are vegan or vegetarian, leaving 95% as omnivores. However, 62% of consumers are willing to reduce meat consumption due to environmental concerns, and 43% say they would replace meat-based protein with plant-based protein.
Meats vs. Plants
According to Dr. Donald Hensrud of the Mayo Clinic, consuming more veggies and cutting back on meat is a healthy lifestyle choice. A plant-based diet typically has more antioxidants, more beneficial nutrients and is lower in saturated fat. But does that hold true when replacing plants with plant-based meats?
“When you run the nutritionals, it’s not that much better for you,” said Mark DiDomenico, director of customer solutions at Datassential. “If you are eating a [plant-based meat] burger with a slice of cheese and bacon, the calories are close to what you would get in a traditional burger.”
Burger King reveals that fact on its website. The Impossible Whopper with everything on it has 630 calories, 34 grams of fat and 25 grams of protein, while a traditional Whopper topped with everything has 660 calories, 40 grams of fat and 28 grams of protein.
This trend is all about seeking healthier options for including protein in your diet.
In late August, 7-Eleven Canada became the first traditional convenience store to adopt faux meat when it launched a Beyond Sausage and roasted veggie pizza at several locations in Toronto and Mississauga, Ontario. The pie is available as a hot, to-go option or can be purchased to take and bake at home. Because it comes with dairy cheese on top, it is not officially vegan.
“By expanding the fresh food assortment offered to our customers, we hope to provide options for every preference,” said Doug Rosencrans, vice president and general manager of 7-Eleven Canada.
Originally, DiDomenico thought fake meat might be a fad, but “it’s flying off the shelves,” he said. “There is so much activity right now with all of the [QSR] chains diving in. The convenience store industry will be looking at the Burger King Impossible Burger to see how that goes. If that really takes off for them and becomes a consistent performer, I don’t know why c-stores won’t put something like it on the menu, whether they serve it hot or have it in the refrigerator case to heat up in the microwave.
“If you’re a fast-moving convenience store and you want to make sure you don’t miss out on things, it’s definitely something to consider putting on the menu [now],” he added. “But it’s still a little early to see what the trend is going to be.”
Shipments of plant-based alternatives through broadline foodservice distributors are up 17% in pound volume versus a year ago, according to Portalatin.
“But keep that trend in context,” he said. “American consumers purchased 280 million veggie burgers from restaurants in the past year, a 6% increase versus a year ago. Still, we purchased 7.6 billion meat burgers.”