Here's How the Burger Is Being Reinvented and Changing the Way America Eats

The success of America’s first-ever plant-based burger joint is no accident, say its founders. When Matthew and Cierra de Gruyter opened Next Level Burger (NLB) in 2014 neither had ever run a restaurant before. But five additional restaurants later, with plans to open many more, they're willing to give a lot of credit where they think it's due: their decision to go with burgers. We chose the burger to promote plant-based food because it "is approachable to everyone," Cierra told Nil Zacharias on #EatforthePlanet.

When the first burger joint opened, "people just freaked out," says Matt. Customers lined up to try the burger patties made with sustainably sourced umami mushrooms and quinoa, a long list of soy and coconut-based shakes, and more. Investors also took note. One of them, Alex Payne, an original founder of Twitter, played a key role in opening NLB's second site in Portland, Oregon, which drew an even bigger crowd of followers.

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Next Level Burger opened in 2014 flaunting a completely plant-based menu of burger joint classics, like the Animal Burger, pictured here. Now on its way to national expansion, the company joins a growing number of meat-free burger ventures working to change the way Americans eat. (photo from Next Level Burger)

"It was lines out the door for days and days and days," says Matt. Only a couple of weeks later Whole Foods invited the business to become a member of its 365 concept, which connects shoppers to "innovative food and lifestyle brands."

Serving Up Burgers for a Better World

Matt and Cierra chose a good time to begin their plant-based venture. Some 38 percent of Americans are now renouncing meat at least one day a week, says the Institute of Food Technology. People are increasingly open to alternatives, thanks to the negative environmental impact of meat, concerns about farm animal welfare, and health worries—eating meat has been linked to high rates of cancer, diabetes and obesity, among other problems.

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The Impossible Burger uses 75 percent less water, generates 87 percent less greenhouse gases, requires 95 percent less land and 100 percent fewer cows to produce. It relies on a plant-derived heme protein found in the roots of legumes, where it helps them extract nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. (photo from Impossible Foods)

Matt and Cierra, who adopted the slogan "Burgers for a Better World," join a growing number of entrepreneurs working to replace the standard climate-unfriendly burger with something much better. At startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, this new breed of producer is looking to replicate "the full consumer experience of conventional meat products," explains Liz Specht, a scientist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that supports plant-based ventures.

So Beyond Meat, which is backed by investments from Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio, invented a burger that bleeds beet juice. At Impossible Foods, the secret to a sizzling plant-based burger is an oxygen-carrying compound called heme, which is uniquely abundant in meat and deeply satisfying to the human palate.

Another sign the market for meat is changing is the increasing interest in alternatives from meat producers themselves. Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats are backed in part by Tyson Foods, for instance, which produces about one in five pounds of chicken, beef and pork in the U.S., according to Fortune. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the company claims its meat-free investment is just another way to see that people “feel good about the protein they’re eating."

Enticing Americans to leave behind the traditional burger could have huge benefits for the world. Removing beef alone from our diet could slash our carbon footprint and enable us to achieve between 46 and 74 percent of the reductions needed to meet the 2020 carbon emission goals pledged by President Obama. It would also save vast amounts of water since producing a pound of beef uses more than 1,800 gallons per pound. And it would free up 42 percent of the cropland now used to feed cattle.

Get Ready for the Impossible Slider

As NLB looks to build some 1,000 new restaurants across the country, other burger joints, even those with cultural legacies, are following suit. Recently, White Castle announced that the newest version of its famous slider would feature an Impossible Burger Patty. David Lee, chief operations officer of Impossible Foods, says the partnership is "an indication that we’re becoming as accessible, affordable and available as our customers demand."

With many Americans increasingly making the choice to eat out, places like NLB have the chance to introduce plant-based options that are hand-crafted, classically comforting, and easy to customize, like "The Signature Burger." The bestseller is made from scratch with a clean list of ingredients, including umami mushrooms and quinoa, and topped with sliced avocado and roasted garlic thyme mayo.

"There are people across this country that need Next Level Burger," Matt says. And he, along with other alternative burger fans, believe the planet needs them, too.

Takeaway:  NLB is expanding rapidly and might just crop up in a city near you. Or you can search for the Impossible Burger. The startup is experiencing rapid growth and moving into gourmet restaurants as well as into classic mainstays like White Castle. The Impossible Slider is now available in 140 White Castle locations throughout New York, New Jersey and Chicago. If it proves to be a success, the chain plans to expand the offering to all 380 of its locations. Want to cook up one these new options? Try the Beyond Burger, and make sure to serve it with your favorite toppings.

This article is reprinted with permission from Stone Pier Press.

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