This April Fools' Day, Impossible Foods was behind a prank video. Customers in a St Louis branch of Burger King were surreptitiously filmed eating the restaurant's flagship Whopper. First they rhapsodized about their love for beef. Then they were told they'd just eaten a plant-based Impossible Burger.
"It's made of fucking beef right here, you see that?" one customer told the camera -- expletive bleeped out -- peeling back his sandwich to reveal the monochrome disc beneath. "That's impossible. It tasted just like a Whopper should taste," said another. Cue close-ups of flames, blackened grills and fat-spitting patties.
The minute-long video announced Impossible's biggest partnership yet: a Burger King Whopper made of plant-based meat that sells for $1 more than a regular one. The deal is a stamp of approval from fast food royalty that will eventually insert Impossible's vegan patty right into mainstream America's daily dietary choices.
I've eaten Impossible meat in gua baos, salad bowls, Lebanese kafta and White Castle sliders. I'm mostly astounded at how plausibly generic it is, how unobtrusively it replaces the ketchup-and-plastic-cheese-smothered slice of gray that usually resides within a fast food bun. How enough heavy spicing or dousing in sauce could sneak an Impossible product past my taste buds, perhaps to be called out in a semi-viral moment of my own.
Tasted without accompaniments, the product has a convincing chew and toasty burnt edges but a hollow savoriness at the core. As a meat eater, I would not crave Impossible meat. If I craved a burger, though, this could go part of the way to satisfying the urge. Note that in the Burger King video, the customers' astoundment hits not when they taste the burger but when they realize they couldn't tell the difference.
This is what's revolutionary about Impossible's burger -- not that it's the best you've ever tasted but that finally there's a viable, inoffensive alternative for meat that you can find at a drive-through for less than $6.
In the trillion-dollar market for meat, inoffensive is a paradigm shift. Veggie burgers have existed in the US since the 1980s; mock meats made by Chinese Buddhists date back to the seventh century. But most meat proxies have historically either not tasted like the real thing or not aspired to.
In the trillion-dollar market for meat, inoffensive is a paradigm shift.
We're in a new era of food tech: ahi tuna sashimi made from tomatoes, lab-grown foie gras. Greggs, the UK everyman's bakery, has made a wildly hyped vegan sausage roll, and in 2013 Dutch scientist Mark Post showed off a $325,000 cell-based burger paid for by Google's Sergey Brin. Nestle, McDonald's and Tyson, the US' largest meat processor, are all set to debut alternative proteins.
These products don't aim to resemble the ascetic formlessness of health foods that trade taste for moral rectitude. But neither are they the soulless nutrition-delivery systems of Soylent and RX bars that trade it for efficiency. The problem with most future-of-food plays is how hard it is to feel any emotion about them. No matter how optimized they are, they're insipid on a sensory level: As Topic wrote about energy bars, "consuming them doesn't satisfy hunger so much as deaden it." These new meat facsimiles aspire to be good enough on flavor, health, price and ethics, proposing the outcome we seldom get in life: Why choose?
Burgers are a good place to start. Americans eat three of them on average per week, and last year they were estimated to consume more than 200 pounds of meat per capita. The US is both the largest global producer and consumer of beef.
Leading the wave are two companies. One is Beyond Meat. Founded in 2009, it makes burgers and sausage links from pea, rice and fava protein. It's in Carl's Jr -- the chain once known for its leering Super Bowl ads -- as well as Whole Foods. The company went public this month, its share price shooting up 163 percent on its first day for a current valuation of around $5 billion, the biggest IPO of the year so far.
"If farmers and ranchers think we can mock and dismiss these products as a passing fad, we're kidding ourselves."
Beyond was first to the grocery stores, first to sell multiple meat products and first to the Nasdaq. But Impossible has arguably the greater soft power based on something simpler: It tastes more like animal meat.
In a public relations coup, even the Missouri Farm Bureau, an agriculture advocacy group in America's heartland, thinks the Impossible Whopper is a leap forward for the competition. "If I didn't know what I was eating, I would have no idea it was not beef," wrote Eric Bohl, the group's director of Public Affairs and Advocacy. "If farmers and ranchers think we can mock and dismiss these products as a passing fad, we're kidding ourselves. This is not just another disgusting tofu burger that only a dedicated hippie could convince himself to eat. It's 95 percent of the way there, and the recipe is likely to only get better. Farmers and ranchers need to take notice and get ready to compete."
Now Impossible counts Jay-Z, Bill Gates and Serena Williams among its investors while other rising food disruptors market themselves as the "Impossible of dairy."
Impossible wants 2019 to be its breakout year. It is about to launch a new sausage product, the first expansion beyond ground beef. The company landed in Singapore this March, following its Hong Kong and Macau releases last year. It aims to be in both grocery stores and Burger King locations nationwide by December (beyond St Louis, the burger is currently available in Miami; Columbus, Georgia; and Montgomery, Alabama). And the company just announced a new $300 million funding round, putting its total capital raised at $750 million for, according to Reuters sources, a valuation of $2 billion.
Impossible says it wants to ultimately create a parallel universe of ersatz animal products from steak to eggs. "The primary goal is to effectively eliminate the use of animals in the food system," founder and CEO Pat Brown told me. Yet as Impossible ventures deeper into the culinary uncanny valley, it also needs society to discard a fundamental cultural idea that dates back millennia and accept a new truth: Meat doesn't have to come from animals.
Video: How Impossible turned food into technology
Impossible CEO Pat Brown is an unconventional startup founder in Silicon Valley. He's not a tech bro; he's a grandfather. He didn't earn his stripes by dropping out of Stanford but from being a professor of biochemistry there for more than two decades.
Brown was the second of seven children. With his father in the CIA, he grew up in Paris; Taipei, Taiwan; and Washington, DC, before ending up at the University of Chicago. There, he did his MD as well as a PhD and met his wife, Sue Klapholz, who is now Impossible's VP of nutrition and health.
At Stanford, he invented the DNA microarray, a genetic-mapping tool, and co-founded the Public Library of Science, a free publishing platform for scientific research. "Pat is unequivocally one of the best molecular biologists on the planet," said Samir Kaul, founding general partner at VC firm Khosla Ventures, which gave Brown his first investment.
But in 2009, Brown took a sabbatical. As he tells it, he wanted to figure out the most important global problem he could solve. He looked at climate change and renewable energy but quickly locked his focus on animal farming.
Both Brown and Klapholz have been vegetarians for more than four decades, and they went vegan together 15 years ago. When they were in medical school, Brown's go-to meal, he said, was a corn tortilla with shredded cheddar and carrots, warmed up in a toaster oven. "There was essentially no cleanup," he said. "Frankly, I'm not a foodie at all."
Brown's central purpose became to disrupt the meat economy even though after decades of vegetarianism he can't honestly tell if his product tastes realistically like animal meat. "It was completely incidental that the problem that I was trying to solve was all related to food," he said. "And the way to solve the most important and urgent problem I would say potentially humanity has ever faced turned out to be to figure out how to make the best burger on earth."
With Kaul's backing, Impossible Foods was founded in 2011. I asked Kaul how he knew if this lauded biochemist would be a strong startup CEO.
"I didn't," Kaul said. "But I knew that he was so driven by the mission that if he wasn't a good CEO, he would recognize that himself, and he would do what was best for the company and the mission. ... There's only one thing that matters to Pat, which is the mission of this company."
The UN estimates that 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production, about the same as from transportation.
It would seem almost bad disruptor etiquette not to tout a moral cause with a little hyperbolic flair -- Travis Kalanick has even pitched Uber as a win for reducing carbon emissions -- but Brown's righteous hostility toward the meat industry is still something to behold.
Impossible's company mission is not a feel-good platitude to "bring the world closer together" or "organize the world's information." It's a SMART-fulfilling, institutionally operationalized goal to wipe out animal-meat production by 2035. He has said on multiple occasions that if he could snap his fingers and make every cow on earth disappear, he'd do it in a heartbeat. It would be the "best thing to happen to the planet in 1,000 years," he told me.
The UN estimates that 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production, about the same as from transportation -- planes, ships, trucks and all. Beef, in particular, has one of the highest carbon footprints, from forest clearing to bovine methane burps to the energy required for shipping and processing the product. The global population is forecast to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and demand for meat is rising in developing countries. Experts have called reducing meat consumption the most impactful thing individuals can do to reduce one's negative environmental impact -- more than buying an electric car or avoiding plane travel.
The stats go on, but there's no need to dwell on them. Because despite the fact that the entire 330-person enterprise purportedly only exists because of Brown's explicit moral mission, Impossible tries not to outwardly dwell on them either. Since Impossible's meat is almost passable for the real thing, its business strategy deliberately doesn't rely on nagging customers into eating ethically.
"Ethical consumerism is a failure and doesn't really accomplish what we want it to accomplish," said Michael Selden, CEO and founder of Finless Foods, a cell-based seafood startup. "What you need to do is create things that are ethical and moral as a baseline but make them compete on metrics of taste, price and convenience, which is what people actually buy food on, and Impossible has really embodied that."
There's a comparison to sustainable energy here: We all need it and we're barely willing to curtail our electricity demands, but if there's a price-competitive, clean alternative, then sure. With food, it's an acknowledgement that -- solely for the guaranteed sensory enjoyment that those who are food secure might enjoy each day -- taste is the key driver to change our habits.
This leaves Impossible in a nice position. The global economic demand for meat combined with the swelling cultural-political urgency to curtail it could be great for business if you have a legitimate alternative. And the high-risk-high-reward venture capital system demands startups that can pitch themselves as limitlessly scalable. A worldwide problem of this degree means that Impossible can plausibly -- and not disingenuously -- bridge both a business goal of sky's-the-limit growth and a messianic narrative. Brown's social mission aligns with his profit-seeking obligation in ways that can make as much sense to private equity as to Katy Perry.
Still, even to compete on taste, you have to get your product into people's picky mouths, overcoming decades of anti-vegetarian bias along the way. On this front, Selden said his two-year-old company was inspired by Impossible. "We straight-up say on our deck we're using the Impossible strategy."