In the ever-growing category of plant-based meats, the Impossible Burger is known as “the one that bleeds.” When I ate my first Impossible Burger at a Bareburger in Brooklyn, I didn’t detect anything blood-like, but absent that, it felt as real as any burger I could remember eating. With a light char on the outside and topped with pickles and American cheese, it channeled the burgers of backyard cookouts in a way that veggie burgers just don’t, which makes sense because as Impossible Foods insists, the Impossible Burger isn’t a veggie burger: It is meat, made from plants.
Impossible is not the only plant-based meat brand making that “meat from plants” claim, though it takes the most subtle middle ground in its branding. Competitor Beyond Meat — who’s crushing it on the stock market after going public in May — peppers its online mission statement with IPO-friendly verbs: It “builds” and “creates” meat that it calls “the Future of Protein®”, a product that just happens to be, by its own estimation, “delicious” and “mouthwatering.” The 40-year-old veggie burger stalwart Boca Foods (now owned by Kraft) also employs the language expected with a food brand (its products, according to its website, are “packed with flavor” and meant to “satisfy junk food cravings”).
But it’s Impossible at the center of conversations among those who purport to be interested in food — vegans and omnivores alike. Like Beyond, it stressed its scientific advancements in its early days, and like both Beyond and Boca, it wants its customers to consider its product “mouthwatering” and otherwise discerningly similar to meat. But Impossible also employed a shrewd campaign that emphasized high-end gloss. It recruited celebrity investors like Jay-Z and Serena Williams and placed famous chefs and restaurants — not grocery stores, direct-to-consumer subscriptions, or university cafeterias — at the center of its strategy. Impossible became the faux-meat burger “worthy” of meat-loving chefs.
“[Chefs] are followed on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook,” says Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods’s chief communications officer. “We have entire television channels dedicated to them. They are enormous influences, not only in foodie circles, but in broader lifestyle trend circles.” Impossible sought out chefs with widely recognizable names to give the brand cultural capital, thus making it the faux-meat burger that the conscientious, trend-seeking consumer had to try. And the chefs they most wanted to represent their product were those who had no problem whatsoever with cooking meat.
David Chang, one of the most recognizable names in popular food culture, was the first to serve the Impossible Burger at his New York City restaurant Nishi. “We’re always looking to support people who are making the best products in the best ways possible and to me, the Impossible Burger is one more example,” Chang said at the time. “First and foremost, we think this makes a delicious burger.”
The Impossible Burger is the only burger on Nishi’s Italian-leaning restaurant menu, and more than a mere option among the pasta dishes, it was a draw on its own. Lines formed for the burger when previously Nishi was “dead as a doornail during lunch and brunch,” as Eater NY reported. And when early headlines were written about the Impossible Burger, they announced the fake meat had earned “David Chang’s Stamp of Approval” and that it “Wins David Chang’s Heart.”
Traci Des Jardins, who consulted for Impossible Foods well before its products were available to the public, became one of the first chefs on the West Coast to serve the Impossible Burger at her San Francisco restaurant Jardiniere. She was by no means a vegetarian (she had never even had a Boca burger, once the closest “meat patty” a vegetarian could get) and Jardiniere was far from a burger joint, but Des Jardins says she was “blown away” by the Impossible meat. “I felt like it was the most revolutionary thing in all my years of cooking.”
When the Impossible Burger did launch at Jardiniere, it was a huge success. “All of a sudden we had to create a ticket system and people would line up to get a ticket to have the Impossible Burger,” she says. “We had to limit the number that we served.” Like any limited-edition sneaker drop, its scarcity no doubt heightened its appeal. (Last month, as more establishments added the burger to their menu, a supply shortage made headlines and added to that idea of scarcity; one restaurateur reported that “a number of people” arrived to try the Impossible Burger, and when informed the restaurant was serving a replacement patty, turned around and left.)
Des Jardins, Chang, and other early-adopter chefs like Michael Symon and Chris Consentino (who literally wrote the book on offal) signaled that the Impossible Burger was a restaurant-quality product, not a compromise for vegetarians dragged to a restaurant by carnivores. Des Jardins likens its introduction to restaurants to the first time customers tasted grass-fed beef. “[Beef and grass-fed beef] were different but the same at the same time,” she says. “That’s a remarkable thing — introducing the product to market in the very beginning and standing in front of people who have tried it for the first time.”
Impossible’s rollout followed the lead of other culty food companies: Blue Bottle was a boutique coffee roaster in San Francisco before it was a $700 million brand with more than 70 locations in the U.S. and Asia. Soylent was once the liquid meal replacement of choice for a certain kind of tech industry employee, available for purchase only online. Now, it’s sold at 7-Eleven, corner stores, and at Walmart. The strategy, says Konrad, means that the current Impossible customer tends to be “very literate, highly educated, fairly high-earning, and very disproportionately millennials.” It’s the people who are reading about the Impossible Burger on the Internet (there’s virtually no other way to find out about it), the exact group a startup brand (like Warby Parker or Tuft & Needle before) would want as its taste-making ambassadors.
Impossible insists its ultimate mission was never to stoke buzz for the product to the point of exclusivity. By mid 2017, Impossible Foods expanded its production capacity and became available to smaller fast-food brands and “better burger chains” like Bareburger and Umami Burger. And the most recent stage took the burger fully mass market. In April 2018, White Castle became the first major fast-food brand to start selling Impossible patties, in a version of its traditional sliders. Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton called the Impossible slider “one of the country’s best fast-food burgers, period,” in part because White Castle’s processed beef patty doesn’t taste all that much like beef to begin with.
In early 2019, the company launched Impossible 2.0, a new formula that better mimicked the look and texture of ground beef. Impossible product now forms the sausage crumbles on top of a Little Caesars supreme pizza testing in select markets, it will soon form the filling in tacos and bowls at 730 Qdoba locations, and by the end of 2019, there will be an Impossible Whopper at Burger Kings across the country, eventually replacing the MorningStar veggie burger that’s been on Burger King menus since 2002.
Meat eaters, not extant vegans or vegetarians, are the primary area of growth for plant-based food companies. The USDA predicts meat consumption will increase in America through 2025, while a 2018 Gallup poll reported that just 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarians. The Impossible Whopper is for Burger King customers who eat fast-food meat, or at least like the taste of it, but aren’t interested in eating it every day; the same can be said for Impossible’s other forays into fast food.
Impossible is now available at every price point, if not in every market geographically. “The intention, right from the beginning, was to keep popularizing this, making it more and more mainstream and mass market,” Konrad explains. “You can’t really do the opposite… If we had launched this in retail, there is no way we would have made this much of a buzz.”
Appearing in grocery stores, though, is the final step to mainstream relevance. “Twenty years ago, plant-based milk was sold in boxes in the all-natural part of the grocery store,” says Alison Rabshnuk, director of engagement for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives. Plant-based milks were targeted to not only those with allergies, but also the well-educated, upwardly mobile customer making considered choices about their diet. “Only consumers looking for those products sought them out,” Rabshnuk says. It wasn’t until non-dairy milks were sold right alongside milk from cows in grocery stores and at coffee shops — essentially normalized — that the products took off, and now, the same trajectory is playing out with plant-based meats.
Impossible has created a world where its product can be sold as a $2 White Castle slider, an $18 Nishi burger, or in a retail-price-still-to-be-determined grocery case, which, once it lands in stores later this year, will complete the trickle-down plans. Our own attempts to grill an Impossible burger, sourced from a grocery case, might not taste anything like the ones cooked by David Chang and Traci Des Jardins, but at this point it doesn’t really matter— we’re already sold.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Andrea D’Aquino is a New York-based illustrator and author.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.