Unappetizing, dry, bland: these are the adjectives that come to mind when we hear the phrase “veggie burger” and start imagining that scary frankenpatty. Insert the Impossible Burger: a burger that bleeds and sizzles like beef but, since it’s made entirely from plants, with none of the downsides. Targeted at meat eaters, it is one of the most in demand food products in America and has finally made its entry into the Boston area.
Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown came up with the idea of a superior, desirable meat alternative in 2009, while taking a sabbatical to consider how to tackle industrial meat production – considered by some to be one of the worst offenders to the plant. Livestock and their by-products account for at least 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, while livestock and livestock feed occupy 1/3 of the Earth’s ice-free land. For these reasons, many of the scientific community believe climate change can’t be tackled without addressing how we eat. According to Impossible Foods’ website, making an Impossible Burger uses about 1/20 the land, 1/4 the water, and produces 1/8 the greenhouse gas emissions of a burger made from cows. The company’s mission reflects their dire view of the status quo: in 20 years, Impossible Foods aims to be producing more than half of the supply of foods the world is currently getting from animals.
How did they create this magical patty? Five years of research allowed the team to discover that while ground beef has many different flavor profiles, the main component that makes it so rich, succulent and addictive for meat-lovers is the presence of a molecule called heme (pronounced like meme), which contains iron that is found naturally in every plant and animal. Traditionally meat has a higher heme content than plants so, by nailing the right concentration of heme, the Impossible Foods scientists were able to mimic the mouthfeel and taste of your favorite juicy hamburger.
The company’s strategy for channel selection and distribution is particularly interesting: unlike most food companies, instead of launching in grocery stores and getting the product into as many consumers’ hands as quickly as possible, Impossible Foods chose to develop partnerships with innovative restaurants who have placed its patty on their menus. By putting it in the hands of talented chefs and allowing them to add their own take on the product, they have created dishes that showcase the patty in its best possible light. This, combined with its limited availability, has caused an immense amount of buzz and interest, leading hungry and curious consumers to line up outside those establishments that have launched the burger. The interest in the Impossible Burger continues to grow. In December, the company launched the “Demand Impossible” campaign on social media where hungry customers can request that certain restaurants begin carrying the burger. In just six weeks, over 15,000 requests have been placed. Evidently, someone was paying attention in the “Place” module of RC Marketing.
By now, I’m sure many readers are wondering where you can get your hands on this wunderburger. The first partnership in our beloved Beantown began with Clover Food Lab in September 2017 with the introduction of a Meatball Sandwich, the first iteration of the product that is not a burger patty. Clover was an ideal partner for Impossible Foods, sharing many of the same values: a plant-based menu and a mission to address global warming by building a better food future. Many of my carnivorous sectionmates have tried it and gushed over how meat-like it was without making them feel bloated and stuffed later in the day, and proclaimed they would be guaranteed return customers. Since then, Impossible Foods has added other outlets, including acclaimed restaurants Little Donkey in Cambridge and The Butcher Shop in South End. At last count, after a staggered rollout in all Clover outlets and Wahlburgers, the company’s website shows 13 current locations across the Boston area.
Critics of the Impossible Burger have cited the high price as the main barrier to entry for most mainstream consumers. The price of the burger is between $14 and $19 at most restaurants, and retails for $16 at Little Donkey. My prediction is that this will come down as the product’s life cycle matures: as demand and so output continue to build, Impossible Foods will benefit from learning effects in production, allowing the cost and retail to decrease. More importantly, we have to ask ourselves what the overall cost to the planet and humankind will be if we don’t make some crucial changes to our diet. When put in these terms, the Impossible Burger comes off like a bargain. Even $19 is a small price to pay for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and destruction of Earth’s remaining natural resources.
Want to grill an Impossible Burger on your own barbecue this weekend? Unfortunately, you can’t make it at home just yet. Currently, the Impossible Burger is only available at partner restaurants but the company plans to hit grocery stores in coming years. And eventually this substitute’s price will become competitive with commodity beef, as Impossible Foods scales and reaches greater efficiency.
Emilie Fournier (HBS ’19) is a passionate and devoted crusader for the planet, spending much of her time helping others move to a more sustainable plant-based diet and baking vegan cookies. Prior to HBS, she spent five years with Walmart Canada in leadership development, merchandising and corporate strategy roles. In her free time, she enjoys trying new restaurants and testing new beauty products.