As the popularity of plant-based foods grows, keeping up with demand for one especially popular meat substitute is proving to be difficult — almost impossible.
Some local restaurants that advertise the Impossible Burger haven’t been able to serve the product to customers lately because of a nationwide shortage of the beef alternative.
Launched out of Redwood City, Calif., in 2011, Impossible Foods makes “meat” burgers from genetically engineered soy heme protein, which gives the patty a taste and texture that resembles beef. A spokeswoman for Impossible Foods said the burger’s popularity has soared since the company introduced a new recipe in January, with revenue growing 50 percent so far this year.
Boston restaurants affected by the shortage include The Friendly Toast and Trident Booksellers and Cafe.
Doug Peel, a manager at The Friendly Toast in the Back Bay, said the Impossible Burger is currently off the menu at all six of the local chain’s restaurants in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Normally, Peel said, he sells about 30 of the burgers at his Boston restaurant every day, at $17 apiece.
“We’re disappointed that we were offered something to sell and advertise for our guests, and now it’s not here anymore,” he said. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”
But not all local restaurants are going without. Wahlburgers, Qdoba, and Clover Food Labs are among the restaurants still serving the meat substitute.
To better accommodate demand nationwide, the company said it plans to hire more workers at its Oakland, Calif., plant and will use a big chunk of a new $300 million investment to increase production. Impossible Foods said its network of 400 distributors — such as US Foods and Sysco — decides which restaurants receive the product.
“The company faces no insurmountable supply-chain constraints or fundamental bottlenecks,” said Rachel Konrad, an Impossible Foods spokeswoman. “Like other successful startups, we are facing short-term manufacturing ramp-up challenges resulting from demand greatly outstripping supply.”
Part of that is because of partnerships that Impossible Foods has struck with national chains, including White Castle, The Cheesecake Factory, and Burger King (which sells it in only 300 restaurants).
In general, the reason behind the surge in sales of plant-based products is pretty simple — more health-conscious consumers are eating less meat, said Ayr Muir, founder of local vegetarian chain Clover, which has 12 locations in the Boston area.
Clover became the first New England restaurant to sell the Impossible Foods meat substitute when it debuted a meatless meatball sandwich in 2017. It remains one of the chain’s most popular items today, Muir said.
“I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from a regular meatball,” Beacon Hill resident Kaan Yuksel said as he left Clover’s Downtown Crossing location on a recent afternoon.
“Now there’s a vegan version of just about everything in the marketplace,” said Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society. “Whether people are totally vegan or not, they can find plant-based versions of their favorite foods.”
Muir said Impossible Foods isn’t the only plant-based company struggling to meet heightened demands. In recent months, Clover has had a difficult time getting Swedish oat milk brand Oatly and egg-free mayonnaise substitute Just Mayo.
Cutting down on the consumption of animal products can help lower cholesterol and reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.
“America loves burgers,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “So if they can get a burger that’s healthy — even if it’s a vegan product — if it feels like and tastes like a burger, people are going to want to try it.”
To satisfy customers who crave faux meat, The Friendly Toast and other restaurants are replacing the Impossible Burger with its biggest competitor, the Beyond Burger, made by Beyond Meat. The company recently made headlines for its successful initial public offering.
Trident general manager Michael Lemanski said customers like the Beyond Burger too, but it appeals more to vegans and vegetarians than meat eaters looking for a realistic beef substitute.
“It’s a good alternative to the alternative,” he said.