Nine months after writing an SF Weekly cover story on the so-called “vegan burger that bleeds,” and a little over a year after it came out, I find myself increasingly fascinated by the growth of Impossible Foods’ signature product. Maybe it’s because my job effectively requires me to eat more meat than ever before in my life, or maybe the promise of a “burger without the cow” that claims to use 95 percent less land and 75 percent less water than conventional beef, while generating 85 to 87 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, is inherently fascinating.
The Impossible Burger is also antibiotic-, hormone-, and cholesterol-free, and the project has attracted the notice of the Gates Foundation and Google Ventures. But until recently, when fast-casual spots like Gott’s Roadside, KronnerBurger, and Umami Burger began introducing it to their menus, it had largely been the province of more upscale establishments like Cockscomb and Jardinière. And the Redwood City-based company wants to be everywhere.
So in August, Umami Burger’s Oakland location invited some food writers in to sample their take on the Impossible Burger, which its builds with two patties, caramelized onions, American cheese, miso-mustard, house spread, dill pickles, lettuce, and tomato. It’s classic, and more importantly, it’s neither vegetarian nor vegan (although both options are available on request).
That’s because while Umami Burger shares Impossible Foods’ interest in reducing the environmental costs of the archetypal American meal, neither company markets itself toward people who already eschew meat. From Umami’s perspective, that may be because veganism is a little too diametrically opposed with most of the rest of the menu. But for Impossible, it’s because the company is openly indifferent toward people whose diets have previously eliminated the very waste the company wants to purge from the industrialized system.
Umami Burger COO Gregg Frazer, a chef, didn’t immediately fall in love with Impossible’s offerings when he first tried them two years ago — although it should be noted that the company tinkers constantly with its formula, making incremental adjustments to improve taste, sizzle, and mouthfeel.
“I’m interested, but only so much as I know what this is,” Frazer remembered thinking at the time. “So I said, ‘Send me the product, and let me try it.’ I played with it a few times and it didn’t go so good. Played with it a few more times and I’m like, ‘We can do this.’ ”
He put together the same build Umami was serving that day, noted the Maillard reaction and the “snap” that, to him, is the mark of a satisfying burger. He pronounced the results “pretty damn good.”
“I think people will like this, and I’ve played with other alternatives before,” he added, wrinkling his nose at the recollection of vegetarian patties that taste like sweet potatoes or cashews.
Umami’s commitment to non-veganism extends to its buns, which contain milk, and to its proprietary “Master Sauce,” which uses fish products in it. (The vegetarian version of Umami burger merely extracts the sauce and the “Umami Dust,” while the vegan burger leans hard in avocado.)
Its standard Impossible Burger which sells for $16, turned out to be the company’s No. 1 seller for some 12 weeks.
“Truth be told, it’s my most expensive meat,” Frazer said. “Right now, it’s almost three times the cost of my beef — and I’m giving the same amount that I do of beef.”
As with the cost of solar power versus natural gas, the mechanics of an economy of scale will eventually bring down Impossible’s price. But for now, it’s less about making money on each individual burger than it is about luring in new customers.
“That’s the win,” Frazier says. “They’re seeking out the Impossible Burger or they’ve never come to Umami. I wanted people to see the meat and taste it.”
Meanwhile, Impossible Foods’ East Oakland plant, which had a ribbon-cutting in March, announced this month that it was ramping up production to where it will be able to produce enough plant-based meat to serve 1 million quarter-pounders each week. The future is arriving, in between two buns.