The time has come for burgers that are, well, not quite burgers in the traditional sense.
Last summer, much of the food world was abuzz with the arrival of the Impossible Burger, a plant-based, um, burger that looks, behaves and, when cooked properly, tastes like beef. Made from a mixture of wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and, crucially, a molecule called “heme,” it made its debut at the ultra-trendy New York restaurant Momofuku Nishi, with plenty of attention from the likes of Vice’s irreverent food site, Munchies.
It wasn’t until this fall that the Impossible Burger made its way to the Bay Area and, even then, it has been a hard-to-nab item. Cockscomb and Jardiniere, in San Francisco, offered the burger at limited times and in limited amounts.
But that is all about to change.
In its first big move to expand production, the Redwood City-based alternative meat company Impossible Foods is heading to East Oakland. It is currently building its first large-scale production facility that will, the company says, allow it to serve up to 4 million Impossible Burgers per month.
As of today, the Impossible Burger is also now available in Oakland at Piedmont Avenue’s KronnerBurger, where it is served on a vegan bun with pickles, lettuce, onion and a vegan version of the restaurant’s signature “cheddar mayo.”
KronnerBurger has made a name for itself serving ultra beefy burgers made with pasture-raised, dry-aged beef, so on the surface, the Impossible Burger may seem like a slightly strange fit. However, owner Chris Kronner said at a press conference March 22 that the ethos of Impossible Foods fits right into his restaurant’s focus on sustainability.
Because the Impossible Burger is entirely vegan, it has, the company says, a much lower environmental footprint than traditional burgers. According to Impossible Foods, it uses 75% less water and requires 95% less land than beef cattle, and the manufacturing process yields just 13% of the greenhouse gases emitted to make a beef burger.
“We were most interested in the sustainability [component] of the burger,” said Kronner. “It’s the same way we approach all of our food here.”
His take on the Impossible Burger looks much like the restaurant’s signature beef burger, but it is entirely vegan.
Bay Area restaurants Public House and Vina Enoteca are also adding Impossible Burgers to their menus this week, making eleven total number restaurants with Impossible Burgers, all across the country. The chain Bareburger is the first multi-unit restaurant to add the burger to its menu. Impossible Foods hopes to grow that number to somewhere around 1,000 by the end of the year; these restaurants will all be supplied by the new Oakland production facility, called “Oak Ranch” by the company.
Expanding to Oakland was a, no-brainer, said CEO Patrick Brown, at the press conference. “Oakland has a long history of being a pioneer and innovator in the food industry, and [food is still] a growing part of the Oakland economy.” Brown added that there is a greater pool of skilled workers with experience in the food industry in Oakland than in the company’s home in Redwood City. He plans to add up to 80 new jobs once the facility is fully up and running by the end of the year.
Plant manager Julien Grascoeur hopes to hire almost entirely within the city.
Oak Ranch’s specific location was also convenient for the company, as it was previously home to the bakery Just Desserts. Much of the infrastructure was already in place, which allows Impossible Foods to “get up and running quickly,” said Brown. “It also lowers our environmental impact since we’re not starting from scratch.”
The new facility is fully funded by both institutional and individual investors, including San Francisco-based Open Philanthropy Project and the Singapore-based Temasek, according to a press release. The company is also funded in part by investments from Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates. Google Ventures, Horizons Ventures, UBS and Viking Global Investors.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is “so excited” for the arrival of Impossible Foods. She said the company fits in to Oakland’s reputation for being diverse, creative innovators, as well as to the city’s working-class roots. She also cited the growing food manufacturing community in Oakland, which, Schaaf said, amounts to $1 billion a year.
As the Oakland facility ramps up production, it will enable the company to begin to explore supplying its product to more mainstream burger chains as well as high-end restaurants. The company says it is expanding with an eye towards cost reduction so that it won’t be out of the reach of those looking for an affordable meal. Eventually, Brown said, Impossible burger meat may be available retail, but it is not currently a focus.
“We want to make the Impossible Burger with the reach of as many people as possible,” he said.
In the even longer term, Brown wants Impossible Foods to develop new foods to substitute for many other animal and fish products. He wants “anyone who loves meat [to] enjoy foods without compromise and without that environmental impact,” he said.
These plans do not, however, include lab-grown meats, which Brown calls “ridiculous.” Citing the environmental impact and cost of developing such foods, he said: “There are better and more delicious products you can make using plants instead.”
Speaking of taste, the actual Impossible Burgers themselves are, surprisingly (to this meat eater), quite good. Even served barely tepid at the press conference, the three burgers sampled were juicy and flavorful, with a texture that almost approaches the real thing. The crucial ingredient is the molecule heme, which Impossible Foods extracts from soy. Heme adds that unmistakable red color as well as an irony umami-ness that is absent from every other vegetable burger I’ve eaten.
Impossible Burgers don’t taste exactly like beef, but they certainly are enjoyable to eat — especially when served as a traditional cheeseburger with lettuce, pickles and plenty of special sauce.