Impossible Foods, a startup selling “bloody,” plant-based burgers that even the most ardent meat-lovers can get behind, was in talks with McDonald’s to supply the fast-food giant with its buzzy burger, The Guardian reported in March. It’s unclear how recent these conversations were.
David Lee, COO and CEO of Impossible Foods, tells Business Insider that such partnerships are likely as consumers demand more plant-based alternatives. But the startup can’t team up with the Golden Arches — or any other global food service retailer — until it can produce at scale.
“I think in some ways what constrains our ability to partner with large-scale [retailers], is the fact that we’re just in the midst of creating the supply for demand that exists already today,” says Lee, who left social-gaming company Zynga for Impossible Foods in 2015.
The company declined to comment on the specifics of its relationship with McDonald’s, but says it is “in ongoing discussions with numerous high-quality restaurants, distributors and chains, both big and small.”
Impossible Foods currently supplies its signature product — a “meat” made from wheat and potato protein, coconut oil, and a “secret sauce” molecule derived from plants — to eight restaurants in New York and California. In March, the company announced its first large-scale production facility on the West Coast. The factory will produce at least one million pounds of meatless meat per month, or four million burgers, once the site is up and running later in 2017.
The new facility will increase production capacity by 250 times, allowing the company to supply burgers to more than 1,000 restaurants someday and bring its fake beef to grocery stores within the next few years.
It’s an exciting development that shows the company is preparing to scale beyond a niche, foodie customer base. But Impossible Foods will need to grow a lot bigger if it wants to replace conventional meat entirely, as the company hopes to do. Compared to the eight restaurants that Impossible Foods supplies, McDonald’s has over 36,000 locations worldwide.
Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, left his teaching job at Stanford in 2009 because he saw how animal agriculture took a toll on the planet. Raising cows, chickens, and hogs for food takes up about a third of the world’s land, and accounts for roughly 9% of greenhouse gas emissions. Brown wanted to put a dent in animal agriculture’s environmental impact by giving consumers a better option: a meatless, “uncompromisingly delicious” burger.
While consumers probably won’t find the Impossible Burger in McDonald’s anytime soon, plant-based foods are gaining traction in grocery aisles across America. They’re starting to actually taste good since tech startups moved into the space. Sales of plant-based foods, which include almond milk, eggless mayo, and veggie burgers, topped $5 billion last year.
Lee is optimistic that talks with large-scale retailers will continue, as the number of conscientious eaters rises. It’s likely consumers will continue to drive the food industry into green territory. Fast-food giants will want to pay attention to Impossible Foods’ efforts.
“I think anyone that serves delicious burgers have to be part of the conversation,” Lee says.