Burger King, whose quarter-pound Whopper pushed its competitors a half-century ago to create their own two-fisted hamburgers, now plans to roll out a vegetarian version of its signature sandwich, relying on plant-based patties developed by San Francisco Bay area start-up Impossible Foods. The Impossible Whopper will be introduced this week at Burger King restaurants in the St. Louis area — in the very state that last year banned the use of the term “meat” for any vegetarian or cell-based substitutes for animal-raised meats.
No, this is not an April Fools’ Day joke. In fact, Burger King’s plan could be the impetus that motivates the highly competitive fast-food burger industry to push for more meat alternatives at a time when beef production has raised countless alarm bells for its contributions to methane production and climate change.
A Burger King spokesman told the New York Times that if the Impossible Whopper succeeds in the Show Me State, the company will expand distribution to all 7,200 restaurants nationwide. Such a move would make the chain the undisputed king of the fake-meat burger. White Castle sells an Impossible Slider at its 370-plus locations. Red Robin has just introduced an Impossible Cheeseburger at its 570 locations, and this year Carl’s Jr. rolled out the Beyond Famous Star, a vegetarian version of its signature burger featuring a plant-based patty from Beyond Meat, at more than 1,000 locations.
But Burger King will have a few difficult tests to pass before deciding to expand the Impossible Whopper to locations across the country. For starters, the veg version will cost nearly a dollar more than the original Whopper, a significant increase in the price-sensitive fast-food market. The Impossible Whopper will also have to deal with consumer skepticism as larger companies move into the meat alternatives market. What’s more, Impossible Foods took heat last year from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for the start-up’s seemingly contradictory stance on animals: Impossible Foods wants to save the lives of countless livestock, but the company simultaneously tests the heme molecule — which is responsible for the “beefy” taste of the vegetarian patty — on laboratory rats.
Yet Burger King does have one advantage as the chain introduces the Impossible Burger: The patty will be based on Impossible’s 2.0 formulation, which the company announced this year, according to CNET. The new formulation, according to the tech magazine, can better withstand the rough treatment that patties, beef or otherwise, receive in a fast-food environment. The company’s latest vegetarian patty is also, apparently, good enough to fool taste testers. A CNET reporter sampled the Impossible patty after it was grilled on one of Burger King’s flame broilers and substituted for the meat in a Whopper purchased from a bricks-and-mortar location.
“The remarkable thing was how unremarkable they were: Nothing gives away the fact that this Whopper contains a different main ingredient,” Brian Cooley wrote.
Should Burger King make a success of the Impossible Whopper, the billion-dollar question is: What will McDonald’s do in response? McDonald’s has more than triple the sales of Burger King in the United States, according to a QSR magazine chart based on 2016 sales. McDonald’s has a McVegan burger available only in Finland and Sweden.
But if history in any indication, McDonald’s could be pressed to introduce its own veg burger, should the public take a shine to the Impossible Whopper. In his 1977 autobiography, “Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s,” Ray Kroc, the man who transformed McDonald’s into a fast-food behemoth, wrote, “The Big Mac resulted from our need for a larger sandwich to compete against Burger King and a variety of specialty shop concoctions.”
Could history repeat itself?