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The Veggie Burger Comes of Age

The Veggie Burger Comes of Age

Veggie burgers are having their moment!

We don’t think people should have to sacrifice anything to eat a veggie burger, but should have something that is just as desirable as meat.

From soy-filled novelty act to mainstream menu staple to the future of the planet in four decades ... veggie burgers are having their moment. Following the same trajectory as farm-to-table, local sourcing and healthy eating, there hasn't been a better time for veggie burgers since man discovered corn, beans and squash. If you haven’t already made room on the menu for this sprightly upstart with a pedigree beyond reproach, consider it now. We’ll check in with some of the industry’s biggest boosters, who have elevated the veggie burger to superstar status.

A different breed than even 10 years ago, veggie burger lovers are unapologetically passionate about a dish that previously made it onto the menu as an afterthought, ranking below even the turkey burger. The world has finally caught up with these plant proponents, whose almost evangelical fervor may be inevitable for a dish whose selling points center on saving the planet. Now eating veggie burgers is no longer a sacrifice made on the occasional Meatless Monday or during Lent. They’ve evolved to the point where taste, texture, sizzle point, adaptability and sheer joy of eating command equal attention. Portobello mushrooms, quinoa, black rice, aduzuki beans and lentils are all fair game for burgers that go way beyond the ubiquitous Boca brand that.

As Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown, creator of the hot new vegetarian BeastBurger, explains: “We don’t think people should have to sacrifice anything to eat a veggie burger, but should have something that is just as desirable as meat.” Hence, the BeastBurger, which taste testers from Bill Gates to the NY Times food writer Mark Bittman to the team at Good Morning America call "as good as meat." Cooks like meat, smells like meat, even chews like meat, the yellow pea and plant-based product is as far from "Frankenfood" as possible.

BeastBurgers come fully equipped with their own farm-to-table story with peas grown in France’s rich soil by farmers, transformed into burger fodder through a heating, cooling and pressurizing process. Similar to pasta, the burger ultimately mimics the fibrous structures of animal protein. Brown also packs it with claims that make a nutritionist weep with joy: more protein and iron than beef, more calcium than milk, more antioxidants than blueberries and more omegas than salmon.

Brown’s team eschewed the veggie burger’s traditional textured soy protein in favor of ingredients like sea buckthorn, pomegranate seeds and moringa leaf to assist in muscle recovery. The performance-enhancing feature provides the BeastBurger with an irresistible marketing hook, and Brown enlisted the architects of the "Got Milk" campaign to help build a team of athletes who will literally put their muscle behind the product’s nutrients. Already on board is David Wright, captain of the New York Mets, and ultra-marathon champion Brendan Brazier.

Many others have taken up the veggie burger cause. Since 2005, there has been a quieter revolution brewing in the Midwest, when restaurateur Hilary Brown started her focus on the veggie burger. Years of struggling with food allergy issues and a deep respect for the environment provided her with the inspiration she needed to reinvent the veggie burger. It’s now the #2 best-selling item at her Local Burger restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas. Bizarre, even for a college town, says Hilary.

The seed was firmly planted, and after customers dubbed her creation “the world’s best veggie burger,” Hilary’s Eat Well was in full bloom. Her initial 50/50 millet and quinoa blend underwent some tweaking before taking shape in its final form, with less quinoa (“an expensive ingredient and some people have allergies”), arrowroot to thicken and provide a crispy fried texture when cooked, apple cider vinegar, psyllium seed husk powder and a variety of organic vegetables. That, in turn, led to the adzuki black bean burger, root veggie burger, hemp & greens burger and black rice burger, and expansion into the foodservice market, boosted by partnerships with trusted vendors.

To Hilary, each burger purchased represents a step forward, contributing equally to the inner and outer ecosystems. Her mission is not to replicate meat, but offer nourishing, allergen-free products that are easily digestible by everyone from the health enthusiast to the health-compromised.

“Many people tell me they can’t stop eating them,” reports Hilary proudly. Grilled onions and peppers perched on the adzuki bean burger and a roasted veggie original veggie burger were bestsellers at her restaurant and easily replicated by her foodservice customers.

And that’s good news for the majority of operators who aren’t planning to "de-beef" their menus but need a tasty offering for dining groups that encompass increasing numbers of vegetarians and vegans. “It’s not easy to talk people into going to a vegetarian restaurant, but there’s no need to automatically rule out the vegan options at omnivore restaurants,” says Joni Marie Newman, author of "The Best Veggie Burgers on the Planet". Her favorite: Slater’s 50/50 in California, known for their 50% ground beef and 50% ground bacon blend, but smart enough to put a big, juicy, scratch-made veggie burger prominently on the menu as well. Put it between honey wheat buns, top it with alfalfa sprouts, avocado mash, cucumber and a dash of garlic aioli, and create a vegan oasis in the midst of red meat mania.

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