When Sonic Drive-In started testing a new burger that blended mushrooms with beef on its menu filled with standard fast-food fare, the restaurant didn’t know how customers would react. But the trial, held in certain locations in 2017, went well. As of today, Sonic is now the first fast food restaurant to offer a blended burger at all of its 3,500-plus locations.
By using a patty made up of roughly 25-30% mushrooms, the environmental footprint of a burger shrinks. “Beef is the most resource-intensive food that we eat in the U.S.,” says Richard Waite, an associate in the food program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which works with food companies to push for more sustainable foods. But Sonic says that most customers are interested in the burgers because they have less fat and fewer calories than the traditional version. Because it’s still mostly beef, it still tastes like the real thing, albeit juicier.
“We put it in tests, and what we were really trying to learn was what was the appeal of this burger?” says Lori Abou Habib, chief marketing officer for Sonic. “It’s a little bit different; it’s certainly the first of its kind for fast food. How would consumers react to it, and do we have it positioned correctly to kind of relay the benefits?”
Consumers responded to the fact that the burger starts at around 350 calories, and the company now markets its cheeseburger–served with lettuce and tomato, onions, dill pickles, mayo, and melted cheese on a brioche bun–as the “cheeseburger that lets you get away with it,” she says. “It’s all about all of the flavor and none of the guilt, which is very consistent with what we learned.” The marketing doesn’t mention environmental benefits.
At scale, those benefits could be meaningful. World Resources Institute calculated that if all 10 billion burgers that Americans eat each year used blended patties with 30% mushrooms, it would cut 10.5 million tons of annual CO2 emissions (roughly equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road), save 83 billion gallons of water a year, and reduce the amount of global farmland needed by an area the size of Maryland.
A growing number of food companies have started shifting to blended burgers. Stanford University serves only blended burgers in its cafeterias. Sodexo, the food service company, serves blended burgers in K-12 cafeterias (in tests, 85% of students preferred them over the previous burger) and in office and university cafeterias.
Chefs adjust the mushroom-to-beef ratio to taste. “At 20-25% mushrooms, you don’t even taste the difference,” says Waite. “The mushroom is completely hidden. That’s one marketing strategy–do you want the burger to taste different, or do you want it to taste just like people are used to? When you get up to 30-40% mushroom, you taste the mushroom umami taste, and it is noticeably juicier.” With more than 40% mushrooms, he says, the bun starts to fall apart, but the mixture can be used in other foods; Google, for example, offers a 50-50 mushroom-beef blend in tacos in employee cafeterias.
The Better Buying Lab, a part of the World Resources Institute that works on sustainable options for food, also encourages restaurants and cafeterias to serve some completely plant-based foods. But because most Americans aren’t vegetarian–and may be less interested in vegetarian foods on a menu–options that simply reduce meat also make sense. “A solution that shifts away from beef and towards plants, even if it’s not a 100% shift, could still yield a pretty big environmental impact, especially if a lot of people do it,” says Waite. “That’s what’s exciting about a mainstream fast food place like Sonic offering this on all their menus.”