Chris Cosentino is known for his meat. At Cockscomb, his restaurant in San Francisco, the chef serves beef heart tartare and pig’s head. But he also now serves the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty aimed at meat eaters, not vegetarians. “You cook it like a piece of meat—you bring it to medium rare,” he says. “It has the juiciness of ground beef, without the environmental impact.”
Developed by Impossible Foods, a startup led by former Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown, who wanted to tackle the enormous environmental challenges posed by animal agriculture, the burger is made from ingredients that yield one-eighth of the greenhouse gases involved in meat production, require 95% less land, and use a quarter of the water. And yet it was designed to mimic every aspect of beef—how it looks, smells, tastes, cooks, and even bleeds. That last part is thanks to the addition of heme, an iron-containing molecule found in blood that enhances the product’s flavor and color. In this case, it’s made through fermentation. (Potato and wheat proteins make the burger chewy and juicy. Coconut oil fries like beef fat.)
Another challenge was actually getting it onto people’s plates. “It was really important to us that the path fit the uniqueness of the burger,” says marketing director Ashley Kleckner. Unlike Beyond Meat, which sells its alt-burger, alt–ground beef, and alt-chicken products in grocery stores, Impossible Foods chose to launch its burger last July at Manhattan’s Momofuku Nishi, followed by a handful of other high-end restaurants. Not only is roughly half of all ground beef that’s consumed in the United States eaten in restaurants, but chefs, says Impossible Foods COO and CFO David Lee, have a great deal of credibility among “the largest demographic purchasers of ground beef in the United States: Millennials.”
On a recent night at Jardinière, in San Francisco, almost every diner in sight had ordered the $16 burger, which is served with a tiny, Instagram-ready “Impossible” flag on top. So far, the burger is sold out almost every night at every location where it is served. Meanwhile, the $2 billion meat-substitute market is projected to grow to $2.9 billion by 2021, according to Euromonitor International. Impossible Foods, which has raised more than $180 million from investors such as Bill Gates and UBS, is renovating a second production facility (beyond its current one, in Bridgeton, New Jersey) that will open in Oakland, California, this summer. By the end of the year, the company plans to have the Impossible Burger on the menu in hundreds of restaurants. Soon, more dishes might join it: Impossible Foods is also developing other products, including hyperrealistic substitutes for chicken, fish, and dairy.