The quest to de-carbonize the economy usually homes in on energy production or the transportation sector. But industrialized food is responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions (as well as deforestation) and beef is the no. 1 culprit. Redwood City-based Impossible Foods has striven mightily to create a hamburger that provides the same sensory pleasures as a conventional burger, except without the bovine middleman and its propensity for methane-heavy flatulence.
Fascinated by this possibility — and by the tensions, even inside the company, between “this is vegan” and “no, this is beef” — I profiled the company’s quest in a cover story in December, when the Impossible Burger was already available at Chris Cosentino’s Cockscomb and Traci des Jardins’ Jardiniere, as well as in Crossroads Kitchen in L.A. and Momofuku Nishi in New York.
Yesterday, Impossible Foods opened its first factory, a facility on 85th Avenue in East Oakland that’s so tilted toward heavy industry that only two blocks away, the air is heavy with the smell of ambient polyurethane. At the press conference, CEO Pat Brown said that by the end of the year, it will employ 80 people and crank out 1 million pounds of product each month. (That’s 4 million quarter-pound burgers, or “4 million satisfied customers,” Brown said.)
I asked him if, as the company’s scientists implied late last fall, the factory meant Impossible Foods would be rolling out new products, like chicken, fish, or eggs. Not yet, it turns out.
“When we started building our knowledge and technology platform, it was not with the intention of making burgers,” he said. “It was so we knew enough about this category of foods and what types of ingredients we could use to produce foods that competed against them, that we could take on the entire sector. So the burger was a strategic choice.”
Changes, for the time being, will be to the existing Impossible Burger — although the R&D team has expanded and they’re working on it. Brown drew a comparison between the quest to transform the food system and the revolution in transportation that the internal-combustion engine brought about.
“We’re constantly trying to not only improve the flavor, but shelf life, nutrition, all sorts of things,” Brown said, “and we’re making new prototypes every single day. So a year from now, it’ll be better — and by the way, the cow will not. Once we have a product that is running even with the cow, the race is over, because the cow is never going to get any better and we’re still getting better every day.”
To that end, Impossible Foods has recruited a few additional Bay Area chefs, including Chris Kronner of Oakland’s KronnerBurger, and Rocco Scordella of Palo Alto’s Vina Enoteca. (Traci des Jardins has begun offering an Impossible Burger at Public House, as well as at Jardiniere.)
Calling it “mesmerizing,” Scordella said he’s created sliders that will be available at Vina Enoteca’s bar, along with a specially made gin-based cocktail.
“I was really excited since the first day I worked with it,” he said. “It’s a new alternative protein for people and for a great cause. … Some people ask me why [I’m doing this] at a high-end Italian restaurant. I feel like a good burger is a good burger anywhere. It was not difficult for us.”
But would it catch on in Italy?
“I think Italians will eat it,” Scordella said. “I think there’s a big boom on burger places in Italy lately. So maybe not at this moment, but maybe in a year.”
Kronner said that his Impossible Burger was the first time his vegan bar manager had ever had anything approaching a beef burger — but admitted to some initial hesitation about it.
“I was initially skeptical,” he said. “I had it for the first time at Momofuku Nishi.”
Noting how the formula has changed over time, he called the current Impossible Burger “really beefy in a weirdly good way.”
“What I used last week to do our testing is vastly different from what I first tasted,” he said. “It tastes to me more like meat lately. Previously, maybe it was just the build of that particular burger, but it was nutty.”
“Overall, my focus has been sustainability and the meat that we use,” Kronner added. “It’s a return to what was once a very normal process and series of practices. We hit work every day to make those processes better with the beef that we use, and all the produce that we use. This is a very different but interesting take on producing sustainable food. ”
It’s also a major investment in East Oakland. Mayor Libby Schaaf was present, and she had glowing things to say about Impossible Foods’ role as an employer as well as a maker of nutritious, sustainably produced foods. She sees it as crucial to the city’s health and wellbeing.
“I’m a big fan of a pilot program that Alameda County is running called Food is Medicine,” she said. “We have to create healthier people and a more sustainable planet. Even thinking of how we address people’s illnesses: Rather than prescribing pharmaceuticals, can’t we just ‘prescribe’ a healthy diet?”
“As we think about health in all of its aspects,” she added, “I think companies like this are really lifting up how important it is that we rethink what we put in our mouths and the impact it’s having — not just on our bodies but on the planet and on the future.”
Four million burgers a month is a lot of burgers, but since Impossible Foods won’t be building its own fast-food restaurant chain, distribution remains an obstacle. While partnering with chefs at respected Bay Area restaurants is wonderful, it’s hardly the same as getting Impossible Burgers into the hands of Joe Six-Pack. The company has begun working with a 43-restaurant chain based in Washington, D.C. called Bareburger, and CEO Brown says the medium-term focus is to make his company’s product more widely available.
“The goal is, within a year or so, to have the majority of the population of the U.S. within a short drive away of a place where they can buy our burgers,” he said.