Last week, Eater NY reported that a Brooklyn Burger King had been sending out beef burgers when customers ordered Impossible Burgers: The fake meat burger, which is not yet available in New York, was mistakenly listed on Burger King’s Seamless page. However, instead of informing customers of the mistake, the manager said he was just sending them regular beef burgers, and instructing the deliverers to inform them of the swap (which they apparently were not doing). “I was incredulous,” said one vegetarian customer when he discovered the dupe. “This is a city where there are a lot of reasons why people don’t eat [meat], from religion to health to ethics.”
A particularly baffling point of this story is why the manager thought the swap would be okay to begin with. It’s pretty standard practice for a server or manager to inform a customer if a dish or ingredient is unavailable, and let the customer choose a new one, rather than just send out whatever they think is closest. But the Burger King manager’s behavior highlights what might be an emerging issue as the “fake meat” industry grows: Real meat is no substitution for the fake thing.
It’s easy to see how a fast-food restaurant would be the site for this kind of mistake. Fast-food restaurants rely on gimmicks and new products to get people to keep coming back: Every season, there’s a Baconator, a Double Down, a rainbow-colored Frapp, or a back-for-a-limited-time McRib to drive customers and, to a large extent, media coverage that puts a chain briefly into the spotlight for non-norovirus-related reasons. The Impossible Burger, like untold iterations of nacho-cheese-topped fries before it, is the hot new thing on fast-food menus. It’s no surprise then that these chains would see the product more as a trend to capitalize on rather than a necessary option for a large swath of consumers.
It doesn’t help that Impossible Foods has marketed itself as a meat substitute for meat eaters, the gateway food into reducing your meat intake, or perhaps giving it up altogether. Rather than highlighting vegetables, grains, and pulses on their own, Impossible uses plants to explicitly recreate the texture of meat, something not every vegetarian wants. They even call it “meat,” which cattle ranchers are trying to fight. Impossible — and other brands like it — make it clear they’re not marketing directly to vegetarians, who already know how many options there are to make a good, meatless burger.
But some people need a vegetarian sandwich in a way they don’t need a Grand McExtreme Bacon Wonder; it’s irresponsible to treat the meat-substitute burger like it’s just another gimmick. And the centering of meat-eaters in both a meatless industry and in the fast-food world means these sorts of mixups are bound to happen more often. Instead of assuming a customer doesn’t want meat, it becomes easy to assume they are just curious about a trend, and would happily eat meat given the option.
Impossible Foods and other fake meat companies bank on the concept of their products being indistinguishable from meat. The whole point is getting people to give up eating meat by promising them they don’t have to “give up” anything, that the experience will stay exactly the same. The idea that fake meat and real meat are interchangeable, and that everyone ordering an Impossible Burger is approaching it like the next must-have stunt-food item, is what allowed the manager at Burger King to lie to his customers. You don’t have to be a vegetarian person to order a vegetarian meal. But let’s not assume that everyone secretly wants meat.