Shouk's veggie burger Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

In February, the London-based policy institute Chatham House released a study with a conclusion that doesn’t mince words: Global dietary patterns must shift to be more plant-based because of the impact animal farming has on the environment. But according to recent reports, although Americans are eating less beef than they used to, overall meat consumption has increased during the pandemic. This is despite widespread coronavirus outbreaks and labor abuses at meatpacking plants. 

There’s a reason why Burger King started in the United States. Burgers reign so supreme here that the United States Department of Agriculture estimated last May that Americans consume an average of 2.4 burgers per day—about 50 billion burgers per year. In the face of climate change, veggie burgers are held up as a compromise since they provide the comfort of a patty between two buns with an ingredient list that includes anything but beef. 

When adding a veggie burger to their menu, chefs face a choice: Do they craft a proprietary burger of vegetables, nuts, grains, and legumes? Or, do they source from “tech meat” companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat whose burgers promise the taste of meat using ingredients like soy leghemoglobin (Impossible) and pea protein (Beyond Meat)?

In D.C., a handful of restaurants focus on veggie burgers. Some produce them in-house, arguing that using “whole foods” is not only healthier but better for the environment. Others chase a more quintessential burger experience and leave nutrition out of the pitch. Some serve both, making room for everyone.

The owners of these restaurants agree that there’s no point eating a veggie burger unless it tastes good. That this even needs to be said says a lot about what they’re up against. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 5 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian. As food and media studies scholar Dr. Emily Contois recently observed, there’s a notion that “the ability to eat well in the United States is to be able to eat meat regularly.” 

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“I solemnly swore that I would never serve portobello mushroom burgers or Boca burgers at any of my establishments because I was so tired of those being the only options,” Doron Petersan says, referring to the formally default veggie burger selections.

A leader in D.C’s vegan scene and a vegan herself, Petersan, owns and operates vegan bakery Sticky Fingers in Columbia Heights and vegan diner Fare Well on H Street NE. 

Fare Well’s first veggie burger was initially mushroom-based, contained 42 ingredients, and took four hours to prepare in advance. Once Beyond Meat and Impossible burgers debuted in 2015 and 2016, Petersan added them to the menu. Soon, they out-sold her mushroom burger. She believes tech meat burgers are an easier entry point into plant-based eating. 

“When we’re trying to introduce somebody to a mushroom burger, it’s just not exciting,” she says. “I think the allure of, ‘This is a burger patty that tastes a lot like meat’ is really what attracts people.” Now, Fare Well only serves Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers.

During the pandemic, Petersan modified her employees’ shifts so only five people work in the kitchen at a time. With that strain on staff, pre-made products like Impossible and Beyond Meat are helpful. Employees can just slap them on the grill. “Being able to purchase a high quality, delicious product that we didn’t have to make in-house and worry about was a blessing,” she says.

Reducing labor expenses helps offset the fact that, at about $2.50, tech meat burgers cost at least a dollar more per patty than the ingredients Fare Well used to source for its mushroom burger. As a result, burgers at Fare Well are priced around $19, with toppings like garlic aioli and sweet pickled jalapeños. 

Chef Margaux Riccio makes similar considerations at Bubbie’s Plant Burgers, the plant-based, certified kosher restaurant that she opened in January with Shaun Sharkey. The couple also run Pow Pow, a plant-based Asian restaurant on H Street NE, and have other ventures in the works including Vertage, a wholesale vegan meat and cheese company.

Bubbie’s offers both Impossible Burgers and Riccio’s scratch-made beet burgers. A “Single Bubb,” the simplest burger on the menu, is dressed with Vertage’s cashew-based American cheese, pickles, and Bubbie’s signature sauce. It costs $9 with the beet patty or $12 with Impossible because the beet patty costs about three times less to produce than an Impossible Burger. 

Riccio observes that most of Bubbie’s customers eat either plant-based or “flexitarian” diets. The latter group, whose diet allows for meat, seafood, and dairy consumption, seem to prefer the Impossible Burger. “They’re people that also eat meat,” she says. “It’s not about animals or the environment, they’re just into good food.”

While the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” are sometimes used interchangeably, people who eat plant-based might still eat animal products, and veganism can incorporate ethical practices that extend beyond food and drink. So although Riccio eats what is technically a vegan diet—she has a serious dairy allergy—she does not consider herself a vegan. 

There’s also the marketing considerations of calling food vegan, part of which stems from the stigma that still surrounds the term, including the false ideas that vegan food isn’t good food, or that it’s food for wealthy White people

“If you say vegan, it immediately gives a negative connotation to people,” Riccio says. “They get this image of ’90s vegan food with sprouts in it.” She recalls that when Impossible launched in restaurants, the company didn’t want their products labeled as vegan. On its website, Impossible says its product “wasn’t made for vegans” and recommends that restaurants label their burgers as “‘Impossible Burger’ rather than a ‘vegan,’ ‘veggie,’ or even ‘plant-based burger/patty.’”

At grocery stores, the story is the same. Even though Impossible and Beyond Meat products are vegan, they’re not always stocked alongside other vegan meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh. Chef Spike Mendelsohn sees that as a positive.

“That was one of the smartest moves that Beyond Meat could ever have done for their brand,” he says. “They didn’t want to be in the veggie or vegan aisle at Giant; they demanded to be in the open-air meat aisle right next to the meat.”  

Along with Ben Kaplan and Seth Goldman, Mendelsohn runs PLNT Burger, which currently operates in six Whole Foods stores in the D.C. region. They exclusively use Beyond Meat products. Goldman, who co-founded Honest Tea, served as executive chair of Beyond Meat’s board of directors from 2015 to 2020. When he joined the team at PLNT, he stepped down as executive chair but remains on Beyond Meat’s board.

Kaplan and Mendelsohn picture their customers as people like them who eat plant-based or flexitarian diets and happen to love burgers. The standard PLNT Burger—one Beyond Meat patty, pickles, the company’s sauce—costs $6.95.

“PLNT Burger is really trying to give consumers that easy choice to spend their money in a company who’s doing something that is conscious for the planet as much as it is trying to generate dividends,” Kaplan says.

For Mendelsohn, who also runs predominantly beef burger chain Good Stuff Eatery, appealing to people with a food they’re familiar with is part of an overall strategy to create change on a macro scale.

“If you look at how you can have a massive change in the food system, you have to be able to play into the eating habits of America first and foremost, especially looking at climate change through the lens of foods,” he says. “If we want to have real effective change, and fast change, sometimes capitalism is the way to do it if you approach it the right way.” 

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With climate-related disasters occurring three times more often than they did 50 years ago and severely threatening global food security and food systems, change can’t come quickly enough. Companies that operate on the scale of Impossible and Beyond Meat make a case that they can be part of the solution. Impossible was most recently valued at $4 billion; when Beyond Meat debuted on the stock market in 2019, its worth surged to $3.77 billion. Both have partnerships with multinational fast-food companies like Burger King and McDonald’s.

There’s no guarantee, however, that somebody who likes eating Impossible or Beyond Meat products will start eating foods like lentils—a legume that is nutritious and a good source of protein—more frequently or at all. Legumes play a key role in soil health, and because they reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, they also reduce greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

That’s why writer Alicia Kennedy, whose popular weekly newsletter covers food and culture, sees tech meat companies as a stop-gap solution, rather than a complete restructuring of what and how people eat. “It will never cease to shock me … that people would rather spend millions creating ‘meat’ out of all sorts of products than simply stop eating meat or make meat a treat,” she wrote in February. 

Encouraging people to have a more thoughtful relationship with meat is something that Jesse Konig thinks about a lot. For nearly seven years, he and Ben Johnson ran Swizzler, a food truck that initially specialized in hot dogs. Last November, the pair opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Navy Yard a block away from Nationals Park, serving both beef and house-made veggie burgers. 

For their hot dogs and burgers, Swizzler sources beef from Joyce Farms in North Carolina. Joyce Farms practices regenerative agriculture, defined by The Counter as “a way of farming that prioritizes soil health and has a host of other benefits, from carbon sequestration to reducing nutrient runoff.” Cows raised at Joyce eat grass throughout their entire lifetimes, making them grass-finished, a step beyond grass-fed. 

Konig says he’s disappointed that such responsibly farmed beef gets lumped into what he describes as a “meat is bad, tech meat is good” dichotomy. While he appreciates the potential for tech meat to make a positive impact, he sees Swizzler’s mission as “trying to provide people with easy access to real food.”

That ethos extends to their veggie burgers, which are made from sweet potatoes and quinoa. Producing in-house is labor intensive, but it’s a trade-off that gives Swizzler a deeper connection with its suppliers. “We like to go directly to the source as much as possible and be really involved in the supply chain,” Konig explains.

He contrasts the ingredients Swizzler uses with monocrops such as soy and corn since Impossible uses soy-derived isolates in its burgers. Farmers receive subsidies in the U.S. to exclusively plant such crops year after year even though the practice is said to harm soil long-term by stripping it of its nutrients. 

Taking care to not use monocrops and ensure their beef is grass-finished comes at a cost, but Swizzler strives to sell food at affordable price points. A single beef burger with cheddar cheese totals $3.89, while veggie burgers run about $6.75 and come topped with avocado, arugula, shallot, dill pickle, and “viva sauce.”

“When it comes to access, price is a huge consideration,” Konig says. “We want people to be able to make a decision of what they want to eat, or what they’re trying to do for their health, based off of their taste or lifestyle decisions, not because it’s a price point consideration.” 

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Tech meat burgers are a relatively new product. They only entered the market about seven years ago, so there’s much to learn about their long-term impact on human health. In the short term, researchers and consumers turn to nutrition labels for clues, as well as reports about existing studies.

In 2019, Consumer Reports compared Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers to beef burgers. Although tech meat doesn’t contain cholesterol, the saturated fat and sodium amounts in Impossible and Beyond Meat either equal or exceed those in beef. And that’s just a plain patty, not the versions offered nationwide at Burger King (“The Impossible Whopper”) or Carl’s Jr. (“Beyond Fiery Famous Star”).

Nutritious food that doesn’t sacrifice taste shaped Ran Nussbacher‘s vision for Shouk, the plant-based, fast-casual restaurant he co-founded with Dennis Friedman in 2015. Incorporating food and flavors from the Middle Eastern diaspora, Shouk serves mushroom shawarma, falafel, and hummus.

Shouk’s burger has attracted the most attention. The Post called it their favorite veggie burger in 2016. At $12, the burger, made of flaxseed, legumes, and vegetables, is packed into a pita alongside roasted tomato, pickled turnips, and tahini.

“We’re all about showing what wonders can be done when you thoughtfully combine vegetables and beans and grains,” Nussbacher says. “We think it’s just culinarily more interesting and fun, and also certainly healthier.” Studies show that plant-based diets help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

“I think a food system relying on animal agriculture is not the best way to have a healthy society,” Nussbacher continues. “At the same time, I think a food system that is based on highly engineered, highly processed products is also not the best way to have a healthy society.”

Sometimes, people just want to eat a burger. But what these D.C. chefs and restaurant owners mull when building their menus—health, nutrition, labor considerations, climate change, agriculture, even the terms people use to define what they eat—informs what they put on the plate. “All this stuff matters. You can’t just look at it in a microscope and ask a question [of] which veggie burger is better,” Nussbacher says. “It’s really all about how we approach the whole ecosystem.”