At Momofuku Nishi, Mr. Motz knew what he was getting. The Impossible Burger arrived on a squishy white bun, topped with a slice of American cheese, lettuce and tomato, fries on the side.
“It looks real,” Mr. Motz said, picking up the burger and examining it. “It feels like the right weight.”
And with that, he took a big bite, chewed vigorously and stared into the distance.
For Impossible Foods to succeed, Mr. Brown will need to win over meat eaters like Mr. Motz. “No disrespect to vegetarians,” Mr. Brown said, “but the only consumers we really care about are meat consumers.”
A vegetarian for 40 years, Mr. Brown is not interested in making just another meatless treat for those who have already sworn off eating animals. Instead, he said, he wants to change the world.
When he took a sabbatical from Stanford six years ago and pondered what big problem he could help solve, he zeroed in on the idea of reducing the consumption of meat.
Never mind the business of killing billions of animals for food. The farming, fishing and production of feed for livestock and poultry strains the earth’s finite resources — consuming fossil fuel, emitting greenhouse gasses, hogging farmland and polluting waterways. “It is seriously imperiling some of the world’s ecosystems, Mr. Brown said.
“But there is a solution,” he said. “Produce all those same foods, with all the specifications consumers demand, but do it with a much lower environmental footprint, without using animals as the technology. That, I realized, was something that was fundamentally doable.”
There is a lot of money riding on Mr. Brown’s eco-vegetarian zeal. Impossible Foods has raised more than $180 million from investors including Google Ventures, UBS and Bill Gates. It is part of a new crop of food companies — Soylent, Hampton Creek and Juicero among them — that is aiming to revolutionize the way we eat. Another company, Beyond Meat, is also making a plant-based ground beef alternative and is already selling in Whole Foods and other stores. It, too, aims to entice meat eaters.
There is a growing market for these products. Sales of meat substitutes are up 18 percent in recent years, to more than $1 billion in the United States this year, from about $850 million in 2012, according to Euromonitor International, a research firm.
“Customers are becoming more willing to accept the idea of alternatives to meat,” said Raphael Moreau, a food analyst at Euromonitor. “And that’s where the real success will come from, by appealing to a much wider group beyond vegetarians.”
But for Impossible Foods to succeed, carnivores like Mr. Motz would have to choose an Impossible Burger over a conventional hamburger at the point of sale.
Mr. Brown said he had no illusions that meat-eaters would go vegetarian simply for the sake of the environment. “We have to have a product that consumers choose because they want to eat it,” he said. “The market will decide.”
So what did America’s burger expert think of the Impossible Burger? Back at Momofuku Nishi, Mr. Motz delivered his verdict.
“No, I’m very sorry, but this does not taste like a hamburger,” he said. “It tastes like a fabrication of beef, not a real animal.”
Mr. Motz wasn’t totally dismissive. The Impossible Burger almost looked the part, and the patty had a pleasurably salty crust. But it lacked the distinctively greasy mouth feel of a real burger, and the flavor was, in Mr. Motz’s opinion, bland. Not bad compared with a Gardenburger, he said, but not like the real thing either.
“This is a big step in the right direction for the veggie burger,” Mr. Motz said. “And I haven’t burped yet. I usually burp.”
Mr. Brown said he was only getting started. The Impossible Burger is being served in just a handful of high-end restaurants for now. There are plans to expand distribution this year and make it available for consumers to cook at home. He and his team are continuing to improve its formula, he said.
“The cow is never going to get better at making meat,” Mr. Brown said. “It was not optimized for beef. It did not evolve to be eaten. Our burger was. We’re always getting better.”
Perhaps Mr. Motz will revisit the Impossible Burger in the future. For now, he is sticking with ground beef.
“I’m proud of the fact that they have gone and made the veggie burger for the proletariat,” he said. “But any carnivore will take one bite of this burger and know it’s fake.”
With that, Mr. Motz left Momofuku Nishi. His destination: a nearby food truck, where he ordered a real cheeseburger.
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