Since its revival several years ago, Herm’s Inn has established itself as one of Cache Valley’s more unique eateries for its homestyle food and old-fashioned building design — not to mention its location off of Canyon Road, a street with few businesses.
Now, Herm’s is distinguishing itself from the local food scene in another way: offering a burger patty that looks like beef, but it’s not.
The patty comes from the Los Angeles-based company “Beyond Meat,” which makes food products that substitute for meat.
While veggie burgers have long been an item at restaurants and grocery stores nationwide, Beyond and other companies, including Impossible Foods, have introduced a product they say tastes — and looks — more like meat than other plant-based alternatives, right down to “bleeding” like beef. Company officials say their product is an environmentally sustainable one and could become the seriously popular rival to beef.
Now, Herm’s and other local establishments in the valley following the lead of a growing number of restaurant chains that are offering plant-based meat alternagtives in an attempt to adapt to customers’ evolving tastes while also trying to be more environmentally friendly.
“It just happened to be along the same time that everyone else is doing it,” said Andrea Steffes, general manager at Herm’s, of her restaurant’s decision to start selling a Beyond Meat burger. “There’s a bandwagon, it seems like.”
But questions from consumers and food critics linger over not only how close the meatless burgers look to their animal-based counterparts, but whether it’s actually worth it as a business endeavor and if it’s healthier for all.
The Herald Journal spoke to local business owners about introducing a meat substitute burger to their menus. The newspaper also talked to USU’s Meat Lab about meatless burgers and whether such a concept could overtake the meat market.
IT’S NOT MEAT, YOU SAY?
In June, Beyond Meat announced changes to its “Beyond Burger,” saying in a press release it is “meatier” than its first iteration, with “marbling designed to melt and tenderize like traditional ground beef” as well as a “meatier taste and texture that mimics the chew and juiciness of beef.”
The patty is made with a mix of peas, mung bean and rice proteins, which the company claims offers “a complete protein source” for consumers.
Beyond Meat’s founder, Ethan Brown, was quoted in a recent CNN article as saying if his company can make a burger patty without an animal, then consumers will accept that.
Haden Davis, manager of the USU Meat Research Lab, said he is open to what brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are doing, even though he spends his days with animal carcasses to process them for human consumption.
Davis’s lab partner, Sulaiman Matarneh, a USU assistant professor of meat science, is aware more people want to try a meat substitute-based burger, but he thinks meat still has a place.
“We should make the meat healthier for people, more delicious — what they like,” he said.
While Matarneh believes there will be competition between the beef industry and plant-based substitutes, “If we convince people the meat we produce is healthy for them (and) tastes good, then I think they will eat more meat.”
“We, as human beings, we need to eat meat because there’s many vitamins, there are many minerals that are only in animals,” Matarneh said. “I know there are supplements now, but this is how I see it. We need to keep consuming meat, maybe just not as much as we do now.”
Recent studies have shown that eating less red meat and more plant-based foods decreases a person’s risk for health problems like cancer and even boosts one’s life expectancy.
It’s one of the reasons why the founder of Impossible Foods says plants could replace animals as a food source by 2035.
“It’s good to have a goal in your mind,” Matarneh said when informed of the Impossible Food official’s comment. “But I don’t think it will ever happen.”
Davis said most of the world’s population is eating meat in one form or another.
“To think that we have the landmass and ability to grow enough plant-based material to feed people, I think it’s a pipe dream,” he said. “It’s a great option. … But they can’t go out to the west desert and grow stuff like I can.”
“BURGER” OR BUST: ARE MEAT ALTS GOOD FOR BUSINESS?
Steffes said she and others had been thinking about changing the restaurant’s veggie patty for a while. Herm’s employees tried a few different options before settling on the current meatless alternative.
“This is a veggie burger, but it has more substance to it,” Steffes said. “We just felt like this one tasted the best and was the best quality we could find.”
Steffes said the meat substitute burger sold at Herm’s is a higher price than a traditional burger.
“But we felt like it was worth it because it is just so much higher of a quality,” she said.
Preston Parker, co-owner of Morty’s Cafe, said within six months of opening the establishment on Logan’s Darwin Ave. in 2013, he and fellow cofounder Ty Mortensen were already talking about serving a meatless burger that was not the typical veggie patty. The results of their market research were similar to what Steffes concluded.
“It’s a high price point,” Parker said. “For our regular $8 burger, it would … add an extra $3 to $4 per burger.”
Parker and Mortensen did some market research before deciding whether or not to introduce a meat substitute burger in Logan.
As to whether Cache Valley residents would be interested in a burger made from a meat substitute. “So far, the answer we’ve come up with is, they wouldn’t,” Parker said.
That is despite the fact that there is a segment of the valley that is environmentally friendly or forgoes meat in their diet, he noted.
Further, Parker said, Morty’s market research on whether a meat-like burger is feasible for business shows that the local burger joint would not make any money off of such a menu offering.
“It would just be public relations, just to tell people we’re doing it,” he said. “Right now, we don’t think the market’s big enough in Cache Valley to make it worth doing.”
But in Salt Lake City, where Morty’s is slated to open a third location in the state, there is demand for a plant-based substitute burger — so much so that Mortensen said he’s willing to pilot a burger patty made from Impossible Foods at the location.
Part of what prompted Mortensen to add such a menu item came as a result of hearing a podcast featuring Impossible Food’s CEO, Patrick Brown.
“He wanted to come up with a product that appealed to meat-lovers and he essentially saw … the amount of land, slaughter and resources that beef required to produce,” Mortensen said. “There’s just a lot that goes into the meat we all enjoy.
Mortensen added, “he wanted to come up with something that would pose less of an impact on the planet but didn’t sacrifice the taste.”
Mortensen said he and Parker have always believed in environmental sustainability.
“We thought this was a great opportunity to add another item to our menu that was in line with our values,” Mortensen said. “Conduct business in a way that is more sustainable but also not sacrificing on taste and quality.”
The Morty’s cofounder said he’s still “crunching the numbers” on whether an Impossible Foods burger patty costs more than beef ones.
“In a lot of ways, launching this in our new Salt Lake location — which we hope to open next month — this will be a bit of a test pilot for Morty’s,” Mortensen said. “We think the market will respond well to it down here … Everyone’s looking for ways they can live and shop and dine more mindfully.”
WHY EAT A MEAT-ALIKE BURGER?
Steffes has been a vegan for years and knows the difference between a burger and a plant-based one.
“In the past, your veggie burgers are black beans, rice — they’re good, but it does not imitate a burger by any means,” Steffes said. “Whereas this (Beyond Meat) is a veggie burger, but it has more substance to it and the ingredients are a higher quality.”
Though she admits anyone who tries the plant-based burger will know it’s not a classic cheeseburger.
“There is a point where it’s not beef,” Steffes said. “But it’s incredibly close and it satisfies that craving, I think, that some people have.”
She gets cravings herself of eating something that has all the properties of a juicy hamburger.
“For me, every once in a while, there’s a texture and flavor that I don’t get from other things and the Beyond Meat Burger satisfies that,” Steffes said.
Morty’s Ty Mortensen is the opposite of Steffes; he loves eating all kinds of meat.
But Mortensen has tried a plant-based burger — and he liked it. Partly because people like him believe plant-based meat substitutes are said to be more environmentally sustainable than their beef counterparts.
“Maybe it sounds a little cheesy — no pun intended — but … shouldn’t comfort food leave you with peace of mind?” Mortensen said. “Doesn’t just feel comforting in your belly, but it also leaves you with, ‘Oh, in a way that tastes better because I know it is better for the world.’”