There it was: The product hailed as the most "meat-like non-meat ever." A vegetable protein widely considered, well, downright meaty. Meaty enough to pass as an option for barbecues, or for burger night with the kids.
Yes, there it was, right there just feet from the bloody hamburgers at the Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado. They'd done it. But the glory lasted all of one hour that day in May, according to the company, which had representatives at the store serving up the ersatz beef. The patties sold out.
The company, Beyond Meat, restocked the brand-new product, called the Beyond Burger. And it is still available in its "meat" case at the Pearl Street Whole Foods in Boulder. That's the only Whole Foods where the burger, a new plant-protein concoction that gives the mouth-feel of a hamburger, and even bleeds like one thanks to beet juices, is available--though the 33 other Whole Foods in the Denver-Boulder area hope to carry it soon.
It was a watershed moment for the Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat, which has been eyeing the fresh-meat case for years, despite having many veggie products already available in Whole Foods around the United States. Founder Ethan Brown thinks it is a non-meat turning point.
"We want to see a world where people can shop for protein on equal footing," Brown says. (Equal footing being a prominent spot in the grocery store near the pre-made burger patties.) "We don't want a penalty box for people who want to eat alternative meat."
Beyond Meat's other products--including Beyond Chicken Strips, Beyond Beef Crumble, and a whole line of single-serving meals--have been in the "penalty box," or over in the frozen foods section, or in the "meat and dairy alternatives" case, for years now. Aside from Whole Foods, they're in 10,000 stores around the country (that's up from 300 stores three years ago). But Beyond Meat's other products have not quite integrated themselves into the culture or the nomenclature of meat.
The Beyond Burger, which sells in a pack of two four-ounce patties for $5.99, is here to change that.
To make it happen, Brown first flew to Maryland, to meet with Whole Foods' global meat buyer, Theo Weening. As Brown tells it, the meeting went well--and Weening himself deemed the burger great, even if saying that would make his meat-buyer peers "think he lost his marbles."
But, it turns out, getting into Whole Foods isn't that simple. Decision-making is fairly decentralized. At least for the meat (and, well, the meat-like).
So Brown and his team began making journeys all across the country to meet with Whole Foods' regional buyers. "We met with various meat buyers over some months," he said. "But then you get into who's going to approve it at the regional level."
Finally, a meeting ended with not just a "yummm," but also with a definitive "yes." It was with Tom Rich, Whole Foods' vice president of the Rocky Mountain region, who happens to be a longtime vegan. He heard about the Beyond Burger from Weening, who had emailed the regional vice presidents. Rich invited Brown to come out to Boulder.
Rich and Brown met right there in the meat section of the Pearl Street Whole Foods. Brown was so excited to show off his product, according to Rich, that he offered to jump behind the counter and cook one up immediately. (Rich said he had a staff member grill one, and ate it himself. "It was just the best veggie burger I've had in my life," he said.)
Rich agreed to put the Beyond Burger in the meat case, and set the company up for that day in late May when the patties sold out in about an hour. (The Better Burger is also available in the Pearl Street store's special vegan section. Extra stock had to be flown in, and the store sold two weeks' worth of supply, or 500 burgers, in two days, according to Rich.)
The holy grail of animal alternatives.
Brown, who is 44, has been vegan since college. But his quest for healthy meat alternatives began in 2009, when he left the energy industry--where he'd attended one too many gluttonous steak dinner while advocating for efficient energy use.
Brown teamed up with University of Missouri food scientist Fu-hung Hsieh, whose work in "high-moisture extrusion of fibrous meat analog" had created a meaty-feeling meat substitute. In 2012, their first product, Beyond Chicken Strips, was hailed as innovative by dozens of food and tech publications. Chefs liked the way the strips shredded into ligament-like strands. And The New York Times's Mark Bittman admitted that Beyond Meat's fake chicken fooled him "badly."
Since, the company has debuted beef crumbles, chicken nuggets, and scores of other products. It aims to create a vegetable-protein-based alternative for every sort of animal protein we humans consume--say, bacon, or filet mignon.
"Each species we are going to try to get right" in ersatz-meat form, Brown says. And, along the way, he wants to change broad notions about consumption of protein. "You don't need to think of meat in terms of its origin--you should think of it as its composition. It is protein, fat, and water. Those are not exclusive to animals."
In fact, when reporters visit the lab facility in El Segundo, California, Brown invites them to meet the "steer"--the company's name for its industrial twin-screw extruder. (It takes pea protein, water, sunflower oil, and an assortment of flavors and nutrients and cooks, pressurizes, and extrudes them.)
Brown isn't just trying to change minds. He's also trying to build a sustainable, long-term company. The lab is a bustling hub of innovation. The Los Angeles Times described it:
...the scene is a chemist's playground, but instead of foaming test tubes and beakers, there's protein powders, legumes and organic vegetables lining the tables. There's three rows of aroma, taste and texture simulators--complex oven-looking contraptions--that operate in the shadow of Beyond Meat's "steer"...
The fact that about 15 of Beyond Meat's food scientists hold PhDs is something Brown is extremely proud of. "This is a lifetime employment opportunity for our amazing scientists," he says. "There's no shortage of work to do."
Time may be ripe for non-meat.
Beyond Meat is seven years old, and has not disclosed its revenue. It employs about 120 individuals, most of whom work on production lines. Brown tells Inc. the company grew 146 percent in the first quarter of 2016 over the first quarter of 2015. It has $17 million in investment from Silicon Valley heavy-hitters such as Bill Gates, Biz Stone, and Seth Goldman. Former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson also invested.
Brown says he thinks Beyond Meat's success isn't simply due to his own products' taste, or their branding.
"Even five years ago, even three, the pull for these types of products was certainly less so than it is today," says Brown, who adds that more doctors are advising people to eat less meat. "It cuts across socioeconomic and geographic boundaries."
Maybe he's onto something. Others in the food-science space are also growing. Hampton Creek has raised a whopping $120 million to replace eggs with a vegetable-based substitute. Tomato Sushi, funded to the tune of $21,000 on Kickstarter, is working to create a faux tuna. Most notoriously, out of Silicon Valley, there's Soylent. And mainstream brands, such as Target's Simply Balanced, are branching into meat substitutes.
The New York Times recently reported that sales of plant-protein products grew 8.7 percent from 2014 to 2015, outpacing overall food sales.
Still, there is awareness to promote, and exposure to gain. Advocates of alternative proteins, such as Isha Datar of the nonprofit New Harvest, say a product isn't a true "alternative" until it's sitting right next to the product you're already used to buying, and eating.
Which is why that single Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, may be the hinge on which the future of Beyond Meat turns.
Brown says universal entry to the meat aisles is the company's current challenge--and a formidable one. But after that? Yes, it'll be tough--but there's a clear trajectory, he says.
"One of the terrific things about the business is it's really straightforward," Brown says. "The goal is always to create a piece of meat that's indistinguishable from a piece of animal protein. And to make every kind of meat. That's clear--and that's our mission."