See more of the story

Meagan Ludolph had no desire to try the plant-based Impossible Burger. “Why would I? It’s not meat,” she asked as she ate at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis last week.

An iron worker from near Peoria, Ill., who was in town for a convention, Ludolph describes herself as “a big burger, fries, tacos and baked potatoes person.”

Then a friend sent an Impossible Burger to her table for a taste test. “This is spectacular,” she said incredulously. “It smells and tastes like meat.”

Many meat-eaters are discovering the meat alternatives that have shown up in restaurants and on supermarket shelves over the past couple years. Even fast-food chains are adding plant-based burgers to the menu, while alt meats have grown to 2% of retail packaged meat sales.

The new meats don’t appeal just to vegans or vegetarians, but also “flexitarians” who want more protein, fruits and veggies and less meat. More than 90% of Americans who purchase a fake meat burger also eat meat, according to market researcher NPD Group.

Local restaurateurs said sales are good and getting stronger.

“We were the second restaurant in Minnesota to carry the Impossible Burger almost two years ago, and it quickly became a top seller at all of our restaurants,” said Luke Derheim, co-owner of Craft & Crew Hospitality, which owns six Twin Cities restaurants including the Howe and Stanley’s in Minneapolis and the Block opening this week in St. Louis Park.

Major players Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were founded in Silicon Valley in 2009 and 2011, respectively, with Impossible offering soy-based burgers and Beyond using pea protein. Their success made alt meat a $4.6 billion industry last year, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets, with that expected to grow to $6.4 billion by 2023.

What makes them different from the oft-derided dry, tasteless veggie burgers is their mimicry of meat’s texture, taste and bloody juiciness. Instead of being made for vegetarians, they are made for meat eaters.

The two companies have been so successful that others are piling on to compete, including Tyson, Smithfield, Kellogg and Minnesota food giants Hormel and Cargill.

Local, independent early adopters such as Hell’s Kitchen and Craft & Crew had to endure shortages of Impossible Meat as the company brought on national clients such as Burger King and White Castle.

Derheim eventually switched to Beyond Meat products for a more consistent supply. “The two burgers are very different,” he said. “There is a different texture and taste profile that made some customers extremely happy and others not happy.”

Avoiding the ‘veto vote’

Even when a meatless burger isn’t a runaway best seller, many restaurants still want it on the menu to avoid what they call the veto vote.

“It’s when a couple or a group of friends is choosing a restaurant and one person says, ’There’s nothing at that restaurant for me. Let’s go somewhere else.’ Restaurants are adding plant-based products to become more veto proof,” said Darren Tristano, chief executive of Foodservice Results, a Chicago consulting firm.

That’s true at a burger-centric place like Burger Jones, where only 2% of burger sales in their Uptown and Burnsville stores come from Impossible Burgers. At organically focused Good Earth restaurants in Roseville and Edina, also part of Parasole Restaurant Holdings in Edina, Impossible sales are 14%.

Minnetonka-based Famous Dave’s is testing four alt-meat entrees to cast a wider net in attracting customers who may be weary of salads. Ten Minnesota locations and four Denver stores recently added barbecue nachos, tacos, a bowl and a tropical burger all made with Beyond Meat.

“We’re staying true to our barbecue silo, but testing alt-meat items, burgers, non-barbecue appetizers and desserts to broaden our universe of guests,” said Chief Executive Jeff Crivello. “Two years ago no one knew of an Impossible Burger or a Beyond Burger, and today they’re common knowledge.”

At a meat market like Famous Dave’s, Crivello doesn’t expect plant-based entrees to ever reach more than a couple percent of sales, but if it keeps individuals from vetoing the restaurant for a whole group, it’s worth it.

Higher prices on alt-meat products don’t appear to be scaring away customers. Prices start at $2 for an Impossible Slider at White Castle and about $8 for larger Impossible Whoppers at Burger King. Sit-down restaurants typically add one or two sides to the burger for prices between $13 and $16.

Catching on in stores

Local supermarkets are also seeing strong interest in alt meats, though they remain in the niche category. Plant-based meats represent about 2% of ground-beef sales at Lunds & Byerlys, but less than 1% of its entire meat department sales, said spokesman Aaron Sorenson.

Lunds & Byerlys, Cub and Hy-Vee, like most supermarkets nationwide, will add more faux meat products later this year and next.

Darren Caudill, senior vice president of sales, merchandising and marketing at Cub, said alt meat makes up less than 1% of its meat sales, but it’s offering only four products so far — Beyond Meat grind, patties and a couple of breakfast meats.

That will expand when Impossible starts supplying Midwestern supermarkets and Smithfield’s Pure Farmland faux meatballs and sausage links hit the meat case. “This category is still in its infancy, but there’s a lot of curiosity about it,” Caudill said. “We’ll be doing more promotion and product sampling to address that.”

Hy-Vee offers several brands, including Beyond Meat brats, patties and ground, Hormel’s Happy Little Plants ground, and Awesome Burger by Nestlé in patties and grind starting last week. In 2020, it will add Pure Farmland meatballs and sausage.

In supermarkets, Beyond Meat patties sell for about $9 per pound at Aldi and about $10 to $12 per pound in bulk at other stores. Impossible Meat is charging about $12 per pound for grind in stores, but it is not yet available in Minnesota supermarkets.

Winning converts

Alt meat continues to polarize fans and foes. Conservative pundit and cattle breeder Glenn Beck expected to easily differentiate the Impossible Burger from a real beef burger when he did a blind taste test on his show in May. “This is insane,” he said, after choosing the Impossible Burger over the real thing. “I could go vegan.”

Arby’s, unlike any of its fast-food competitors, is countering the alt-meat interest with its “We have the meats!” advertising blitz. In May an Arby’s spokesman insisted that the company has no intention of adding plant-based meats now or in the future.

Alt-meat companies have one trend on their side: Nearly 20% of the adult population is trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. Because meatless burgers are plant based, many consumers assume the soy or pea-protein patties are healthier than red meat.

Nutritionists said that the highly processed burgers are often higher in sodium and saturated fat than ground beef. Their real advantage, the alt-meat companies said, is that their products leave a lighter environmental footprint, using far less water and land than cattle.

“When we first starting selling their product a couple of years ago, Impossible Foods sat us down and said not to promote it as a veggie burger or vegetarian,” said Cynthia Gerdes, co-owner of Hell’s Kitchen. “They said to position it as an environmentally smart product. On our menu we say, ‘You’ve never tasted plants like this.’ ”

jewoldt@startribune.com 612-673-7633