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Substituting Greens for Meat

I can’t exactly pinpoint when a good old American “hamburger” evolved into what is now usually called just a “burger,” but I do have a pretty good idea of when the burger jumped the shark.

Fellow travelers, the burger made out of plants is now becoming a menu option at fast-food joints. A milestone was set in April 2018 when White Castle, founded in 1921 in Wichita on the then-novel idea of selling little five-cent all-beef hamburgers by the sack, became the first major fast-food chain to offer a meat-free burger, which it calls the “Impossible Slider” ($1.99).

Generally regarded as having been the first fast-food take-out chain in America, White Castle now has about 420 restaurants, mostly in the Midwest, Kentucky and Tennessee, with some in the New York region and a few in the Southwest, including Las Vegas.

Since White Castle successfully added plant-based burgers to the regular items on its menu, which is of course heavily based on genuine beef, fast-foot joints across the country – which account for a big chunk of the estimated 50 billion burgers Americans wolf down each year – have rushed to join add plant-based burgers to their menus, or to at least test the market. Carl’s Jr. did so last January, and others like Del Taco are joining in. Burger King is selling a new “Impossible Whopper” at dozens of restaurants in the Saint Louis area, and planning to expanding the meat-free burger to its 7,200 stores nationwide.

McDonald’s, which is expected to start jumping on the bandwagon at its 14,000 U.S. stores this year, began selling a “Big Vegan burger” last April at its 1,500 outlets in Germany. Casual chains like Chipotle are on board in the U.S., and Chick-fil-A is even looking at chicken-free protein substitutes for its 2,200 stores.

For business travelers, and especially millennials, there is obvious market appeal in having quick-grab meatless choices on the road, where fast-food outlets are among the top most-expensed items.

Dining is the third-largest segment of the $424 billion a year (2017) in business-travel spending (behind lodging and airfare), says the Global Business Travel Association. Millennials, now firmly established as major drivers in that market, show clear preferences for convenience and heathier, cheap-dining choices. In a survey commissioned by the business travel association, 51 percent of Millennials said they usually choose fast-food meals on the road, whereas 79 percent of Baby Boomers say they prefer upscale dining. Across the board, though, about two-thirds of all business travelers say they prefer having healthier menu options.

So the old burger joints are responding to market forces in league with startup companies innovating plant-based meat substitutes like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Plant-based burgers, scientifically designed to look, smell and taste like real meat, can be high in sodium and saturated fats, and in general cost more than meat. As manufacturers and retailers see it, the meat-free market isn’t specifically vegans or even vegetarians, but includes “flexitarians” who sometimes eat meat, as well as traditional carnivores looking for options and aware of environmental impacts that animal agriculture imposes.

But are the darn things any good?

Let’s consult a man who would seem to have a clear bias toward the cattle industry, Eric Bohl, the director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau. Missouri calls itself the “Show Me” state, and Bohl wanted to be shown. Last April, when Burger King rolled out its Impossible Whopper at 59 stores in the St. Louis area, Bohl did a comparative taste-test: Traditional Burger King all-beef Whopper against newfangled, plant-based Impossible Whopper.

He said he was motivated to send a “wake-up call” to the livestock industry to adjust to the reality that plant-based meat substitutes are here to stay as formidable competitors in the market, and attention must be paid.

In his blog for the farm bureau, Bohl wrote this of his taste-comparison test between the meat and the not-meat Whoppers: “The difference was pretty minor. If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have no idea that it was not beef.”

MEMO PAD – NASA plans to open the International Space Station for visits by tourists and business-traveling marketers, at about $35,000 a night. That includes shared room (typically six people, with two “space toilets”) in cramped and reportedly grotty quarters orbiting about 250 miles above Earth (a bit more than the distance between Boston and New York). Room rate doesn’t include fare. “It currently costs NASAS more than $40 million per astronaut to blast crews to the station using Russian hardware,” The Wall Street Journal reports. No word on mileage points.

…Could happen, I guess: The investment firm UBS asserts that thanks to commercial space flight initiatives by Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin, long-haul international flights of over 10 hours will some day be “cannibalized” by point-to-point flights on rocket-propelled vehicles. For example, New York to Shanghai with a loop through space: 39 minutes. Details, naturally, will need to be worked out. About 150 million passengers a year now fly routes longer than 10 hours says UBS. Red light – Back on Earth, Texas is the latest state to ban those much-hated traffic-light photo enforcement systems under a bill that takes effect on September 1.

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Joe Sharkey
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