Ron Swanson isn’t alone in thinking “Veganism is the sad result of a morally corrupt mind; reconsider your life.” It’s a pretty popular point of view that is also extended to vegetarians. And, who can blame people when a vocal faction of meat-free eaters insist on doing things like picking fights with Nintendo over a milking game on the Switch, and advocating grilled carrots as a replacement for hot dogs. I have literally been vegetarian my entire life (okay, I ate meat on like three occasions as a kid, AMA), and even I know that a marinated carrot shouldn’t be called a freaking hot dog. It very well may be completely delicious, but it’s not a frankfurter, and it never will be.
The problem with this Ron Swanson philosophy is that it paints all vegetarians and vegans with a similar motivation and overlooks the many people who follow a plant-based diet for health or environmental reasons but like the umami flavors of meat. We non-meat eaters are not monolith! We contain multitudes! Luckily, people looking to enjoy cookouts (unlike those thoroughly fun-less carrot people) can choose from dozens of veggie burgers. A person who wants to make food choices with a smaller negative impact on the planet but who also needs a juicy, meaty burger can go for the Impossible or the Beyond Burger. Meanwhile, a person looking for a burger that’s only one Weight Watcher point is gonna go Boca. And a person who demands to know every item on a nutritional label will do well with a burger from Dr. Praeger’s.
This wasn’t how things used to be. In the begining, the Seventh-day Adventists created the commercial veggie burger… and it came in a can. We’ve gathered up some important dates in the evolution of the non-meat based burgers for #BurgerWeek. It is an abbreviated history, so you won’t learn about every veggie burger ever. But, we are legit down to talk about any of them that you tried and liked or the ones you found slightly less appetizing than paper mulch. We won’t say that gossiping about vegetarian burger options is our jam, but we might have once gotten kicked out of the frozen section of Whole Foods because of a passionate exchange of burger opinions.
Loma Linda Foods is founded by Seventh-day Adventists. The company produces some of the first commercial wheat- and soy-based faux meats.
Loma Linda releases the VegeBurger, a canned meatless ground hamburger. It’s 17.75 percent protein.
The RediBurger, another Loma Linda product, hits the market. These canned hamburger patties are shelf-stable.
Morningstar Farms introduces Grillers meatless hamburger patties to the market. Their big selling point is the utter absence of cholesterol.
During a period of bad weather, Paul Wenner’s Gresham, OR restaurant experiences slow business. Left with a ton of leftover rice pilaf, the chef and restaurant owner begins experimenting, adding mushrooms, oats, and low-fat grated cheese. This is the birth of the Gardenburger.
Gregory Sams, a London-based natural food restaurant owner, releases his VegeBurger. Some people consider this the first commercial vegetarian burger; however, the Loma Linda options definitely precede it, contributing to justified paranoia on the part of Seventh-day Adventist foodies. This Vegeburger is sold in a dried food packet that required being rehydrated, shaped into patties, and cooked. A frozen version hits the market two years later.
Paul Wenner founds Wholesome and Hearty Foods, the company that releases Gardenburgers commercially.
The Boca Burger is released by Sun Foods.
Burger King makes an agreement with Worthington Foods, who have acquired Morninstar Farm, to test Grillers at 39 locations in upstate New York; efforts are met with mixed results.
Demand for Boca Burgers is so high that Publix can’t keep them in stock and Sun Foods has to turn away Albertsons and Winn Dixie as customers until they can increase productions. Also, the burgers make news for being on the menu at the White House.
Frozen vegetable juggernaut Green Giant enters the fray with the Harvest Burger, a textured soy protein burger. The company starts with a soft launch, hitting a ten-city test market in late 1993, before expanding to 20 in February 1994. In the fall, distribution goes national.
Roughly 500 Subway sandwich shops begin serving Gardenburger Subs. All 1,500 Denny’s nationwide begin serving Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties, and the Chili’s chain serves Morningstar Farms Spicy Black Bean Burgers. Vegetarians across the country suddenly get to eat more than fries and salads when hauled to a chain by friends and family.
Field Roast Grain Meat Co. is founded in Seattle by brothers David and Richard Lee. The company makes “a charcuterie-style vegetarian grain meat.”
Gardenburger pays $1.5 million for a 30-second ad during the airing of Seinfeld finale on NBC. It features the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. The Gardenburger market share rises from 35 to 50 percent after the ad airs, and sales that week hit $2 million, up from $368,000 the same week of the previous year. This would come to be considered the start of the veggie burger wars. “Thank you Gardenburger!” crowed a press release from rival Boca Burgers. “… In the end, we’re going to win the meatless-burger wars.”
Meatless patty sales increase 61 percent over the previous year. The biggest producers at this time are Morningstar Farms, Green Giant’s Harvest Burgers, Gardenburger, and Boca Burgers.
Gardenburger releases soy-based options, which prominent figures in the vegetarian community believe to be an attempt to compete with Boca Burgers.
Increasing rivalry causes leading burger companies to increase spending. Gardenburger expenditures are ratcheted to 18.2 million, and Boca Burger boosts their advertising budget from $500,000 to $4 million.
Philip Morris Co’s Kraft Foods unit acquires Chicago-based Boca Burger Inc., which has annual sales of $40 million.
Boca Burger announces a line of vegetarian and vegan burgers made using certified organic soy.
After nearly a decade of testing veggie burgers in various markets, Burger King adds the BK Veggie to the permanent menu. The patties are made specifically for the fast food company by Morningstar Farms.
Beyond Meat is founded in California by food scientist Ethan Brown. Among the investors are the founders of Twitter, Bill Gates, and the creator of Honest Tea. The company’s missions is to “create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein.”
Impossible Foods is founded to offer customers tasty, healthy, affordable dairy and meat items made directly from plants. Investors include Bill Gates (again!) and Google Ventures.
McDonald’s opens its first entirely vegetarian restaurant in India. Meanwhile, not even McDonald’s fries are vegetarian in America.
Red Robin enrages meatless burger fans when a short ad uses the line “We even have a garden burger … just in case your teenage daughter is going through a phase.” In response to a wave of social media venom, Red Robin phases the ad out of rotation.
Field Roast releases hand-formed vegan burgers made with fresh carrots, celery, onion, and garlic, as well as whole barley. The founder, David Lee, has them tested at ball parks in San Francisco, Cleveland, and Seattle.
Beyond Meat releases the Beast Burger, which has more iron than a four-ounce serving of beef, 24 grams of protein, more calcium than a cup of milk, and more omegas than four ounces of salmon. In multiple taste tests, participants can’t differentiate the patties from meat.
Impossible Foods partners with Chef David Chang to debut the Impossible Burger at his Manhattan property, Momofuku Nishi. Later, it is made available at Cockscomb and Jardinie re in San Francisco, as well as Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. The burger’s big selling point is that it fools carnivores. In fact, it “bleeds” because it includes the compound heme, which is found in blood and the roots of specific plants.
Whole Foods is named the official seller of Beyond Burgers from Beyond Meat. These plant-based patties resemble ground beef so closely that the grocer stocks them in the meat department as well as the section reserved for meat alternatives.
Umami Burger rolls out the Impossible Burger at nine locations. It immediately becomes the best selling burger at each location and continues to hold that spot. Further expansion is planned.