Bill Gates-Backed Vegan Burgers Hit Mainstream With Safeway Deal

  • After starting at Whole Foods, Beyond Meats branches out
  • Company hopes to appeal to consumers seeking meat alternatives

The next generation of vegan burgers, which promises to bleed and sizzle like real ground beef, is taking another step toward the mainstream.

Beyond Meat, whose investors include billionaire Bill Gates and food giants General Mills Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., will begin distributing its plant-based vegan burgers in more than 280 Safeway supermarkets in California, Hawaii and Nevada, according to the company.

Beyond Meat burger

Source: Beyond Meat

The Beyond Burger, as the product is known, hit the market last year, but to this point it’s only been available at Whole Foods locations and a handful of restaurants. At Safeway, the burgers will appear in the meat case, an attempt to go directly after traditional beef eaters.

Beyond Meat and competitor Impossible Foods have created buzz in foodie circles with vegan burgers that they argue will help wean average Americans off meat. Vegan eating -- once the province of strict dieters and animals-rights activists -- has been gaining broader acceptance in recent years, helped by endorsements from celebrities such as Bill Clinton and Beyonce. A growing number of consumers are now seeking out plant-based products for both health and environmental reasons.

While the Beyond Burger has sold well at Whole Foods over the last several months, getting into a conventional grocery chain marks a turning point, said Ethan Brown, the chief executive officer of Beyond Meat.

“It’s a really important step in terms of reframing how we think about meat,” the 45-year-old said in an interview. “We assume that an animal has to be used for meat, and that’s just false.”

Gates’s Attention

Beyond Meat patties sit at a Safeway supermarket.

Photographer: Craig Giammona/Bloomberg

Beyond Meat, based in El Segundo, California, was founded in 2009 and initially focused on a frozen-chicken substitute. The business drew the attention of both Gates and 301 Inc., the venture arm of General Mills. After its new vegan burger was released last year, Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat producer, announced it had purchased a 5 percent stake in the company. Beyond Meat also is backed by Don Thompson, the former CEO of McDonald’s Corp.

The Beyond Burger, which is made from pea protein, isn’t the only game in town when it comes to vegan burgers with culinary distinction. Impossible Foods, founded by Stanford biochemist Pat Brown, is touting its own plant-based patties as an alternative to meat. But the company has focused more on distribution at high-end restaurants.

In addition to pushing into conventional grocery stores, Beyond Meat is also available at roughly 30 restaurants on the West Coast. And the product was recently introduced in the dining halls at Yale University.

In stores, the burger is sold in packs of two patties for $5.99. And while Brown thinks the taste and sizzle of the vegan burgers stand up against traditional beef, he acknowledges that price could be an issue for mainstream shoppers. He thinks he’ll be able to undercut beef within the next five years, as Beyond Meat increases its scale and pays less for ingredients.

“That’s when things will really get interesting,” he said.

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