In 2018, U.S. consumers ate roughly 13 billion burgers, according to data from consumer trends market research company NPD Group. And burgers are consistently one of the most popular items on menus across the country.
Still, people love it.
So what is it about burgers? Maybe it's the juiciness people can't resist, or that distinctive savory umami flavor. Maybe it's the American-ness of it all.
Plant-based "meat" producer Beyond Meat is betting on it: The company is taking on the beef burger with Beyond Burger, a vegan veggie-based patty that is meant to look, cook, taste and even "bleed" like red meat, but that is healthier and more sustainable.
"The burger is something people love," Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, tells CNBC Make It. "And so we went after that core part of the American diet."
It's working in a big way.
The company has famous investors like Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio and even former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson and America's largest meat processor, Tyson Foods.
And since their debut at Whole Foods in May 2016, Beyond Burger patties have made their way into tens of thousands of supermarkets (from Kroger and Safeway to Whole Foods), restaurants (from TGI Friday to Carl's Jr.), hotels (like The Ritz Carlton, Hong Kong) and even sports stadiums (like Yankee Stadium).
Beyond Meat says it has sold 25 million Beyond Burgers worldwide. The company recently filed for an IPO and is reportedly worth more than half a billion dollars.
Just don't call Beyond Burger a veggie burger. It may be 100 percent plant-based (and GMO-, soy- and gluten-free), but this vegan patty is meant for meat-eaters too.
"[W]e're reaching mainstream consumers that are interested in healthier forms of meat," Brown tells CNBC Make It.
To accomplish a juicy, meat-tasting product that carnivores will crave, Beyond Meat biophysicists figure out, at a molecular level, what it is that makes meat taste and behave like meat. They then identify plant materials that behave the same way, to replicate it.
So "we like to think of meat, not from its origin — say from a chicken or a cow — but in terms of ... the proteins, the carbohydrates, the lipids, the minerals and vitamins, all of which are available — except for cholesterol — in the plant kingdom," says Beyond Meat biophysicist Rebecca Miller.
The lab technicians at Beyond Meat's research and development lab in El Segundo, California, are even trained meat sommeliers, and they are constantly innovating on the product.
The main ingredients in the original Beyond Burger are pea protein, beet coloring and beet juice to make it "bloody," and potato starch and coconut oil to create juiciness. Beyond recently launched its 2.0 burger (available only at Carl's Jr. and A&W restaurants for now), which also includes brown rice and mung bean proteins, for a meatier taste and texture, according to the company's website. Each 4-ounce Beyond Burger patty has 20 grams of protein and about 20 grams of fat, which is comparable to a beef patty.
Many are huge fans of Beyond Burger, which like a beef burger, can take grill marks, cooks slightly pink in the middle and releases juices when you bite in.
"It's so meaty, it's almost kind of freaky," says vegan mom Emily Landry on her @mrs.modernvegan Instagram, after trying Beyond Burger at a Carl's Jr. drive through.
"I'm not vegan ... but I promise, this is actually really good," says meat-eating music producer That Orko after taste-testing Carl's Jr. Beyond Burger on pop singer Miss Krystle's YouTube channel.
Two CNBC Make It staffers who tried Beyond Meat products also liked the burger but were even more impressed with its Beyond Sausage. "The burger is very tasty," but the sausages, "they could be real," says producer Mary Stevens.
Still, Beyond Burger is processed (the plant ingredients are put through heating, cooling and pressure to turn them into a meaty substance), no more than vegan junk food, say some critics. ( "It's a process we're proud of, and one we feel consumers are more comfortable with vs. the process of traditional livestock production," says Allison Aronoff, Beyond Meat's senior communications manager.)
And although eating a plant-based "meat" is healthier than red meat in many ways, it can be higher in sodium than beef, says dietitian Jen Bruning. (One Beyond Burger patty has 380 milligrams of sodium according to the company website; for comparison, Wegmans 80/20 ground beef patties have 90 milligrams per patty; the average fast food single patty burger has 378 milligrams of sodium.)
Whatever your burger pleasure, targeting meat-eaters is a smart move — there are way more of them than there are vegans and vegetarians. Only 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and 3 percent vegan, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Those numbers haven't changed much in the last decade or so.
Brown says the company found that 93 percent of the consumers in conventional grocery stores that are buying a Beyond Meat product are also putting animal meat their basket. "So they're buying not only plant based meat, but they're buying animal meat and that's a really important breakthrough for us," Brown tells CNBC Make It.
One tipping point in bringing plant-based "meat" to the masses has been the increase in product quality thanks to brands like Beyond Meat, James Kenji López-Alt, chef/partner at Wursthall restaurant in San Mateo, California, tells CNBC Make It.
"Tens of millions of dollars have been invested into researching this product and making it better and making it more real meat-like. And I think we are ... 99 percent of the way there," he tells CNBC Make It. "It's close enough that people eating it enjoy it the same way that they enjoy actual ground beef."
Plus, he says, prices have "reduced drastically" to about the same amount as meat. (At Bareburger restaurant in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, a Beyond Burger costs $12.95 and a comparable beef burger is $11.99. At the grocer, Beyond retails for about $5.99 for two patties, while four Wegmans patties retail for about $5.44 online.)
All this has made Beyond Meat big business.
Beyond Meat products are in more than 32,000 grocery stores, including Kroger, Safeway, Publix, Target and Wegmans. And Beyond Burger has menus from Fridays and Del Taco to Hamburger Mary's Bar and Grill to upscale Brasserie Ruhlmann in New York City; they're served at universities from Ohio State to Harvard and even theme parks like Legoland.
While TGI Fridays declines to share sales data, its senior director of food and beverage innovation David Spirito tells CNBC Make It that Fridays has guests saying they came to Fridays specifically for the Beyond Burger.
And burgers are not the only plant-based "meat" Beyond Meat sells. It also sells sausage, chicken strips and beef crumbles, and has other products in the works.
"We want to make bacon, we want to make steak, we want to make the most intricate and beautiful pieces of meat," says Brown.
In November, Beyond Meat filed for a $100 million initial public offering, reporting a 167 percent increase increase in revenue (to $56.4 million) for the first nine months of 2018 from the same period in 2017.
The company has grown from a $4.8 million valuation in 2011 to $550 million in November 2017, when Beyond Meat closed its latest ($55 million) round of funding, according to private market data company PitchBook. In addition to Gates, DiCaprio and Tyson, notable investors include Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and the Humane Society of the United States.
But plant-based meat is not only lucrative, it's good for the environment.
Beyond Meat was started in 2009 by Brown, who was once a carnivore, but growing up around his family's farm in Western Maryland had an impact.
"I spent a lot of time there with dairy cows, so I was very close to animals growing up, loved them and was fascinated by them."
Passionate about the environment, Brown pursued a career in clean energy to help mitigate the effects of climate change. "But I began to realize that livestock had a larger contribution to the climate than many other things that I was working on in terms of the emissions," he tells CNBC Make It.
Indeed, 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from methane emitted from cows. And it takes an average 308 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of beef, according to the USDA. Raising livestock for meat and dairy also depletes farmland.
In fact, eliminating or reducing consumption of such products "is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use," said University of Oxford's Joseph Poore, co-author of a recent study analyzing the environmental damage of farming.
Producing Beyond Burgers uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, creates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 46 percent less energy than producing beef burgers, according to a September report commissioned by Beyond Meat. The report, which measures the environmental impact of a quarter pound Beyond Burger as compared to a quarter pound U.S. beef burger, was conducted by the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan.
And of course, plant-based "meat" production does not entail any inhumane treatment of animals, something that plagues factory farming.
For all these reasons, in 2018, Beyond Meat was a co-winner of the United Nations' Champions of the Earth Award, in the Science and Innovation category. The other winner? Impossible Foods.
Beyond Meat isn't the only plant-based "meat" game in town. Impossible Foods, which launched in 2011 and is headquartered in Redwood City, California, also makes its products entirely from plants.
Impossible Burger uses heme, a genetically engineered iron-containing molecule for the taste and aroma of meat. It is available at White Castle (the $1.99 slider) and at other restaurants in the U.S. and Hong Kong, and the company plans to hit grocery stores this year. Actor Kal Penn (who appropriately starred and "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle" — pre-vegan sliders) and Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates have invested in the company. Impossible Foods was valued at $350 million in January 2018, according to Pitchbook.
Another emerging company in the space, San Francisco-based Memphis Meats, is growing animal meat in the lab. Launched in August 2015, Memphis Meats has raised money (reportedly over $20 million) from the likes of Gates and Richard Branson. Unlike Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, Memphis Meat uses harvested animal cells to grow its product, which is known as called "clean meat."
But Brown says Beyond Meat's biggest competitor "really [is] the meat industry itself."
U.S. retail sales of plant-based "meats" grew by 24 percent in 2018, while animal meats grew by just 2 percent, according to Nielsen data commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association. The market for meat substitutes is expected to grow to $6.4 billion worldwide by 2023. And Brown and others believe alternative meats are the future.
"In 30 years or so, ... I think that in the future clean and plant-based meat will become the norm, and in 30 years it is unlikely animals will need to be killed for food anymore," Branson wrote in a blog post in February.
David Lee, Impossible Food's chief operating officer and chief financial officer agrees. "Pat Brown [Impossible Foods founder and CEO] puts it very nicely," Lee tells CNBC Make It. "He says, 'You know, one day children everywhere will look up at their parents and say, "What? You used to eat meat from animals? How strange."'
Lee says the goal is to give meat-eaters everywhere "something that tastes better but it's better for them, that is better for the environment."
It's the goal of Beyond Meat as well.
"Someday, I think plant-based meat will overtake animal protein as the main source of meat," Brown tells CNBC Make It. "I do believe it will happen in my lifetime."
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!