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Can a Better Burger Make a Difference?

Livestock production is a major source of greenhouse gases, and if we all cut back on eating meat, it could have a big impact on the environment. Can a niche choice become a norm? Seth Goldman ’95 discusses his company’s effort to transform the way we eat protein.


The goal is to be no big deal. To make a burger so tasty and ubiquitous that it’s just one more option in the grocery store’s meat case. And that goal is in reach, if a review in the Los Angeles Times is any indication: “Against the average grocery store burger,” judging for sizzle on the grill, smell, juiciness, and taste, “you’d be hard-pressed to pick out a clear winner.”

Why is it remarkable when a burger is indistinguishable from the average patty? Because Beyond Meat’s burger is made from pea protein and yeast extract. And whatever their merits, to date, veggie burgers haven’t been hard to differentiate from hamburgers. Beyond Meat’s breakthrough is big enough to get Whole Foods to do a test run in the meat section in some store. Big enough that Bill Gates, Twitter founder Biz Stone, and Don Thompson, the former McDonald’s CEO, have all invested.

Beyond Meat, which also makes plant-based chicken, meatballs, and ground meat “crumbles,” isn’t after the 4% of Americans who are vegetarians, said Seth Goldman ’95, the company’s executive chairman and co-founder and TeaEO emeritus of Honest Tea, in a conversation with Yale Insights. The company is targeting the much broader swath of the population that is cutting down on meat, in order to be healthier or more environmentally sustainable.

For those wanting to reduce their environmental impact, Goldman argued, eating less meat is more effective than driving a hybrid or taking shorter showers. (Research attributes more than 25% of greenhouse gas emissions to the food system, and livestock production accounts for as much as 80% of that.) At the same time, he realizes few people are ready to give up meat entirely, especially burgers.
 
“Look at the trends. Meat consumption is down. Sandwich consumption is down. But hamburger consumption is up,” Goldman said. “We’re not going to make a successful business by telling people they can’t eat hamburgers.”

He believes Beyond Meat has an answer. “When we can source the same core ingredients—protein, fats, minerals, and carbohydrates—from plants and reassemble them in a way that mimics, perfectly, the experience of meat, that can be a transformational impact on the ecosystem and on people’s health,” Goldman said. “Then we have to think about how we package it, price it, and market it. All of those things have to be done in a way that makes it accessible. We can’t be preachy.”

Goldman is drawing on his experience building Honest Tea. “Things that start in the natural food channel get embraced very quickly by the mainstream when they succeed,” he said. “For a lot of people, Honest Tea was the first organic product they ever consumed. When someone goes to Wendy’s, they’re not going [in order] to buy organic anything. When you order an organic tea or organic kids drink, you order it just because it’s on the menu.”

Becoming ubiquitous is key to having an impact. Beyond Meat products are already stocked in stores like Walmart, Target, and Safeway and is driving more than 50% of the growth in the alternative meat category, according to Goldman. But the company doesn’t want to be limited to a niche. “Our goal is not to be the bestselling veggie burger. If we’re the bestselling veggie burger and that’s all we do, then we failed,” Goldman said. “We expect to help transform the way America eats meat.”

In the process, he expects to transform the way that Americans buy meat. Some day, he imagines, the meat counter will become the protein counter. “We want to be sold alongside other meat products like ground hamburger or turkey burgers or chicken breasts,” he said. “When we can be adjacent to our competitors, then we’re reaching a different type of consumer.”

Executive Chairman, Beyond Meat; Co-founder and TeaEO Emeritus, Honest Tea