Mission: Impossible BurgerLast Edited: Dec 25, 2018 7:11 AM -05:00
Bite into an Impossible Burger and one of the first things you’ll notice—and one of the characteristics that distinguishes it from other meatless burgers—is the blood; the plant-based burger bleeds like a hamburger.
“The Impossible Burger is very versatile, which we can attribute to our use of heme,” says Nick Halla, SVP of International at Impossible Foods.
The heme (soy leghemoglobin) is a molecule added to the other ingredients of wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes, which is iron-rich (it’s contained in blood), and that the company Impossible Foods produces using fermented yeast.
Halla adds: “When the heme in the Impossible Burger is combined with other elements found in meat—vitamins, amino acids, and sugars—and heated up, it generates flavor that our taste buds and brain recognize as meat.”
It’s what makes it something even die-hard carnivores enjoy, according to taste tests conducted around the world.
“Furthermore,” Halla notes, “the taste and texture of the Impossible Burger is heavily influenced by the chef’s choices about how to prepare the meat for consumption, for example meatballs, burgers, sausage meat and gyros are all being made with Impossible Meat.”
The year 2018 has been a whirlwind for Impossible Foods, the company that makes the Impossible Burger. The Oakland, California-based outfit has been taking in the rave reviews for the Impossible Burger—it was originally introduced at Momofuko, a high-end Asian restaurant in New York City—all while launching its Impossible Slider, which, last September, was introduced to all 377 White Castle locations.
It has since been proclaimed as one of the best fast-food burgers on the planet, thanks in part to the members of the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, who shot a four-part sci-fi-inspired video series featuring the Impossible Slider for White Castle. The video series debuted in September of this year.
In 2018, Impossible Foods achieved several major milestones in connection with the Impossible Burger. First, in May, the burger earned kosher certification; in July, the Food and Drug Administration approved the heme molecule. Then, in early December, the burger was halal certified.
All the while, the Impossible Burger found its way into thousands of new restaurants, including top-tier establishments in New York City and San Francisco. Not to mention fast-food establishments such as Fatburger.
But it’s quite possible that none of this would be possible if the folks at Impossible Foods hadn’t stumbled upon representatives of the Bridgeton-based Food Innovation Center—in Illinois of all places.
“A team of top engineering and marketing people from Impossible Foods had come upon our table at a food show a couple years ago, maybe three years ago in Chicago,” says Julie Elmer, associate director of food technology at the Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Food Innovation Center (FIC) in Bridgeton. “There was an area of all university incubators, so we did not know that that’s when they found us … but when they did finally approach us almost a good year later they were at a stage where … had developed the heme … and they were going … trying to get into a plant situation where they could actually make enough product. They had actually been doing some trial work in Canada. It was an issue bringing material back over the border, so they were excited to find a U.S location.”
Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 by Patrick O. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., formerly a biochemistry professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Stanford University School of Medicine. Although its headquarters is based in Redwood City and their manufacturing facility is based in Oakland, California, you could say the Impossible Burger got its start in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
“The Food Innovation Center was critical to our scale up path,” says Halla. “The center was the first small-scale production line put in place to help Impossible learn prior to opening Oakland; we worked through many early challenges at Rutgers enabling us to scale Oakland successfully from the start. Also, it was Impossible’s main production site producing Impossible Burger for up to 40 restaurants; this was critical to seed the market prior to expansion.”
“When they came here to visit,” says Elmer. “I think they were still trying to brainstorm through all of the different processing they could do and because some of our folks had a pretty good foundation in meat processing they thought, ‘Okay, well, these guys could probably give us some help because we’re not food people. We’re basically biochemists ….’
“We have had quite a few tenants through the years that will bring everything in and set up a little mini factory inside our footprint. I’d say the first few months was just really setting up this equipment and they were just trialing stuff. Even in the beginning they pulled out equipment, brought in new stuff, until they optimized the texture and they were constantly experimenting.”
“We found them, and they found us,” says Richard McArdle, director of the FIC. “We had this conversation and we saw where we were complimentary. They were lacking some perspective on how to turn a rough prototype, some base technology into a finished product and that’s what we are really really good at—especially because we are industry veterans.
“I think we have a sweet spot and big contribution to make in this county and throughout the state of New Jersey,” touts McArdle. “We know fruit and beverage. We know how to concept it, market it, formulate it, how to scale it up. That in its own way is a very big deal. Just because I have something in a small container doesn’t mean I can make it 10,000 gallons at a time. That’s quite hard in science from a standpoint of consistent quality, cost, shelf stability of the finished product.”
Adds Elmer: “It’s always exciting with all of our clients to be part of their creative process and then to see them gain acceptance in the market. We have worked with larger companies and small companies. I would say that Incredible Foods was a kind of fun project because it was truly unique. A lot of times we might be doing fairly predictable things like a hot sauce or tomato sauce, which there are like 500 [varieties] out there in the grocery store, but this was a truly unique undertaking and I think that was very fun.”
McArdle says, with the terrific growth of Impossible Foods, the FIC has openly lobbied for the company to open up a second plant in Cumberland County.
The relationship can continue with Impossible.
“The relationship can continue with Impossible,” he says. “This isn’t the only protein they are going to do, so we can’t speak to the future, but they want to go after tuna, chicken, eggs and everything, so it is potential we will have a role in future developments.
“Right now, they are in Oakland and it is a really expensive real estate market, so we would be a great county for them,” adds Elmer.
Meanwhile, the Impossible Burger is getting set to launch in grocery stores in 2019. Although the company is tight-lipped about which grocery chains will carry the Impossible Burger, Halla says the announcements will come soon.
“Impossible Foods will be launching in retail in 2019,” says Halla. “Currently, the Impossible Burger can be found at about 5,000 restaurants in the U.S and is also available in Hong Kong and Macau. Next year, we will be available in additional restaurants in Asia, including Singapore.”
In recent weeks, it’s been reported that McDonald’s has been keeping its eye on the Impossible Burger, with the company thinking hard about introducing plant-based burgers at its restaurants.
Halla adds: “Impossible Foods will be announcing specific locations and supermarket chains in 2019.”
In a perfect world, not only will Impossible Foods come back to Bridgeton to work on its next big thing in the food industry, but everyone will be using Jersey ketchup on their Impossible Burgers during next summer’s Fourth of July barbecues.
Photos Courtesy: Impossible Foods
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