The Veggie Burger Boom Is Finally Making Vegetarian Food Cool

Vegans and meat eaters alike are turning toward today’s delicious plant-based foods, and it’s a boon for diners and the environment.

Superiority Burger's Sloppy Joe. (Photo: Instagram)

Oct 8, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Marian Bull is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The gray, vegetable-specked patties on offer in the supermarket freezer aisle can quickly turn a hungry person off vegetarian food. Commercial veggie burgers are a fine option for meat abstainers looking for a quick dinner or something to put on the grill, but they pale in comparison with the fresh (and meatless) burgers that today’s chefs are putting out, packed with scratch-cooked beans and grains, fresh vegetables, and a keen eye for texture and flavor.

We have, perhaps, hit peak veggie burger levels. With the celebrated opening of Superiority Burger in Manhattan’s East Village this summer, chef Brooks Headley has inspired a large amount of meatless hoopla. Slightly uptown at the NoMad bar, chef Daniel Humm has added a $16 veggie burger to his menu. April Bloomfield, whose star rose with the popularity of her Spotted Pig hamburger, just announced plans to open her own burger restaurant, with promises of vegetarian options.

Casual vegetarian joints are popping up all over. Fast-food chains have gone meatless between their buns too: This spring, Wendy’s and White Castle both announced the arrival of veggie burgers on their menus. The logic of food trends dictates that veggie burgers will continue to proliferate in cities, restaurants, home kitchens, commercial kitchens, sponsored content, fast-food chains, and Sunday cartoons. Meatless eating is finally going mainstream.

The first commercial veggie burgers—Boca and Garden—appeared in stores in the early 1980s. The Moosewood Cookbook, that ur-text of American vegetarian cooking written by Mollie Katzen while she was working at the upstate New York vegetarian collective-slash-restaurant, was first published in 1974. It included one burger recipe: lentil-walnut.

“Vegetarian food was different back then. Fresh produce was very limited—it was a different world for food shopping,” Katzen recently told me. “It wasn’t about vegetables so much; it was more about finding an alternative to meat.” And bolstering those alternatives with margarine, cheese, sour cream, and a whole slew of other dairy products to make them as appealing as possible. “Fresh” and “light” were not words you’d use to describe vegetarian food in the ’70s and ’80s.

In the past decade, however, chefs have begun to source and prepare vegetables with more aplomb than ever. Trend pieces have been written about leafy greens, kale is inescapable, and farm-to-table cooking is being criticized by the very chefs who pioneered it. The unsustainability of commercial meat production has been revealed. A new genre of restaurant epitomized by chains like the ethically minded Chipotle and Danny Meyer’s beloved Shake Shack, most often called fast-casual, aims to provide well-made and well-sourced food at regular-person prices. Thanks to a coming together of restaurant trends and economic necessity, healthy food has escaped the health-food stigma, and we are entering the golden age of casual vegetarian food.

While studies suggest that less than 10 percent of the population eats a meatless diet, that doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for this sort of food. In 2000, Americans consumed an average 57 pounds more meat than they did annually in the 1950s, according to the USDA. But market research suggests that even meat eaters are turning to products marketed to vegetarians: Nutrition Business Journal’s 2015 Food Tribes Report found that 36 percent of consumers use a meat alternative, and about a quarter of Americans said they cut back on meat in the past year.

Demand for sustainable meat is up too, but sourcing enough of it is a challenge for restaurants and retailers both enormous and small. Chipotle, for one, had to remove pork from its menu because it simply couldn’t source enough at the ethical standards it required; even large-scale “humane” or “ethical” meat is looking unsustainable, according to a recent report published by Bloomberg. So instead of making meat the main affair, some restaurants are mixing vegan and vegetarian dishes with judicious use of protein from coddled animals.

At Sqirl in Los Angeles, chef Jessica Koslow has developed a cult following for her casual, produce-driven, very California food: rice and egg bowls, toast that overflows with jam. Its website bills the restaurant as “bacon serving but vegan-friendly.”

“We do use meat, but it’s very much dependent on the farmer and where we’re getting it from,” Koslow explained. “You can get pork belly for $8 a pound and the pigs have lived a really lavish life, or you can get really sad pork at a dollar a pound.” For chefs who don’t want to charge fine-dining prices but do care about sustainably raised meat, a mostly vegetarian menu is almost a necessity. And it allows for more freedom and flexibility with their ingredients.

In Manhattan, Headley splurges on soy products from Hodo Soy in Oakland, California. “It’s the best tofu and yuba you can get your hands on. It’s more expensive, but we’ve completely eliminated meat, so our luxury items aren’t foie gras and wagyu and caviar—they’re, like, yuba and farmed kelp from Connecticut,” he said. Or frisée from the Greenmarket that runs $12 a pound.

“Affordability was one of the main reasons for doing this,” said Headley, who has spent the last 16 years in fine-dining restaurants and wants to create high-quality, thoughtfully made food for people of all incomes. “And that’s why it’s not a sit-down place—we need to do massive volume in order to make it a profitable thing.” Casual meatless food has always been affordable—see pizza, mac and cheese, the omnipresent creamy pasta option at so many restaurants—but it has never been this exciting or healthful.

And while the veggie burger boom is making its way up into the fine-dining ranks—see that $18 burger at NoMad bar, whose sister restaurant received three stars from The New York Times—it also reflects a growing acceptance of affordable, casual vegetarian food making its way to a wider audience and a larger number of chefs experimenting with affordable meatless dishes.

Food marketing—whether it comes from corporations or restaurants—has always been about making us feel good about our choices. Ads in the 1950s guilted housewives into feeding their families and playing the role of perfect wife; in the 1970s, we all held hands and bought the world a Coke; recently, it’s “organic” and “natural” labels that pat us on the back as we slide them into our shopping carts. The foods we eat—and talk about eating—reflect our collective culture.

Today, the compelling food marketing involves good-looking farmers in sweeping landscapes, either communing with a happy herd of livestock or plucking a pert radish from damp earth. It speaks of connection, of seasonality and freshness. And the vegetarian food of today looks less like a brown alternative to meat and more like a legitimately vegetable-focused endeavor.

Even the old guard is changing. At old-school vegetarian restaurants like NYC’s Angelica Kitchen—founded in the ’70s and still going strong in the seitan game—the quality of produce has increased significantly, Headley said. Traditional vegetarian food may not have changed drastically, but its taste has. We’re still getting plates of rice and beans and kale—but that kale might be locally farmed, the beans heirloom and flavored with a little something special. Traditionalists have stepped up their game, and more chefs have stepped up to the vegetarian plate.

While food trends may come and go, and perhaps we’ll be yelling about grilled cheese, not veggie burgers, in a month or two, the proliferation of this sort of food can’t and won’t stop. So the next time you go out to dinner, consider getting yourself a veggie burger or its grain-bowl brethren, and you’ll be doing some good, both for your wallet and for the environment.