Serving the Impossible Burger, a meat-centric restaurateur's perspective

Impossible Burger photo
© Bull City Burger and Brewery

It's a veggie burger that actually bleeds. But who's the target audience?

While they do serve a (reportedly very good!) veggie burger named after Joan Jett, Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham, NC, is not normally thought of as a destination eatery for vegetarians. Whether it's the beef burger-centric menu or the annual exotic meat month (featured meats include kangaroo, alligator, reindeer and bugs), the focus is most definitely on a carnivorous cuisine.

That said, like their much more vegan-friendly sister restaurant Pompieri Pizza—which earned an honorary mention from me for phasing out plastic straws and promoting reusable takeout containers—BCBB has always had an interest in sustainability, local food and lessening its environmental footprint. Having installed LED lighting, reclaimed wood furniture, eliminated unnecessary waste, supported more than 30 local beef farmers (2 of whom they saved from bankruptcy!), and aggressively measured their energy consumption, BCBB is about to embark on another adventure:

They are now serving the much talked about Impossible Burger—a meat-like, plant-based patty that's said to be so realistic it 'bleeds'. So what's it like for a meat-centric eatery to serve the new breed of plant-based meat analogs? I sat down with owner Seth Gross to find out:

"I've been trying to get my hands on this thing since I read about it two years ago. It's not that we are turning our back on grass-fed beef, but we aim to be the go-to destination for all burger lovers here in The Triangle. So we wanted our vegetarian and vegan neighbors to be able to have something special here too. Impossible Foods recently reached out and let us know they are finally in a position to scale up their production and connect with distributors. As far as I know, we are the first restaurant in the region to serve it."

Asked what the challenges are to serving The Impossible Burger, Seth is pretty open: Firstly, as a restaurant serving so much meat, they've had to rework their stations in the kitchen to make sure there's no cross contamination with meat or dairy. (If you want it vegan, you'll need to order it as a lettuce wrap for now. BCBB's house-made buns contain cottage cheese.) Secondly, the price is currently pretty high. While local, grass-fed beef is often three times the price of regular ground beef, The Impossible Burger currently costs BCBB three times more again at wholesale prices:

"We often have the impression that eating plant-based is cheaper, but that's not always the case when it comes to these meat analogues. Our beef burgers start at $7.75 with the base toppings, but we're going to have to charge $12.95 for The Impossible Burger. I'll be interested to see if there's demand at that price point, especially among the 'flexitarian' crowd that Impossible Foods is aiming to convert."

Early reports are that there is definitely an interest, with a fair few local residents expressing excitement on social media that they could finally test the hype. And, when I came in to try it on a Tuesday, staff were reporting mostly positive reactions, feedback and reviews. One vegetarian did report that it was much too meat-like for their taste, a sentiment also echoed by one of Seth's vegan back-of-house staff. But Seth is now watching to see if early curiosity turns into long-term demand:

"In just two days we have sold over 50 Impossible burgers to adventurous and curious customers. There has been a lot of buzz about this burger and an excitement to try it. We have been very impressed with the number of people trekking in for a taste. I can't wait to start getting all the feedback from customers to see if it's a keeper."

For my part, I concur with much of what Katherine said in her review, and Robert Llewellyn said in his. It was a pretty enjoyable eating experience, but not quite a slam-dunk replica for BCBB's pasture raised beef. The crispy, savory crust was pleasing. And the pink, juicy center was also more interesting than your usual, somewhat dry soy-based protein patties. Yet there's something about the texture—still a little mushy—and a strong, maybe overly salty aftertaste which give it away as being not-quite meat. (A BCBB representative did emphasize that they are experimenting with how to cook it, and may cut back on seasoning.)

Finally, with 13g of fat (10g of that saturated), and 430mg of sodium, you'd be hard pressed to call this a health food. But it is cholesterol-free. (For more on this topic, Food and Wine has an interesting run down of the various health pros and cons.) As someone who has radically cut my meat intake in an effort to curb cholesterol, and reduce my environmental impact, I would definitely go this route if given the choice between a fast food or dive bar burger and The Impossible.

Whether I'll switch from the very occasional delicious, pasture-raised burger at BCBB, however, that's a whole other question. And that's something that Seth and I discuss in some detail—the idea that meat ought to always be a central part of our plates is, he argues, a weird notion that we would all do better moving away from:

"When my family goes out to eat, we find ourselves eating more and more vegetarian because if we do not know if the meat is pasture-raised we will not support a broken food system that is harmful to animals, the planet and ultimately to us. I feel we should all embrace fresh vegetables and grains, and only add in happy meat occasionally and when we can afford to. We support the real price of food and real farmers who grow it and raise it."

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