Burger King's veggie burger inspiration?
WATKINS GLEN--As one thing inevitably leads to another, a non-profit based in Watkins Glen has impacted food choices across the country.
Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary president and co-founder with Lorri Houston, found his calling when he rescued a live sheep named Hilda from a stockyard "dead pile." Needing a place to house her and other animals taken by police and animal rescue groups from conditions where they were starved or otherwise mistreated, he began Farm Sanctuary in 1986 near Watkins Glen on 271 acres close to Sugar Hill State Forest.
As the population of animals grew--there are now about 800 rescued animal residents at the Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary--so did the population of human workers, interns and visitors.
Baur says, "We wanted to be able to recommend where they could find vegan food. So I talked to businesses and asked whether they could do that. We thought it would be good for businesses and visitors."
Starting locally, in the early 1990s he found a receptive listener in Dennis Kessler, then the franchise owner of the Burger King in Watkins Glen. Kessler, who has since moved on, took the question to the corporate office, who decided he could test the market here. They approved the use of a spicy bean burger made in the United Kingdom. Kessler imported a good quantity of these burgers and began to advertise this new offering. He and Baur thought the quantity he ordered in February might last until that summer. Instead, it met with such an enthusiastic reception, all the burgers were gone by May. He re-ordered--and began to look for a domestic supplier.
One was found in Berkeley, California. Some time later, Baur says, Burger King "cracked down" and didn't want other restaurants to sell it--until they did a national roll-out, calling it a "veggie burger." These are still sold today in various locations around the country, although it's still not the chain's best-selling product. The veggie burger remains available in Watkins Glen though--$3.45 per serving, enabling vegetarians and non-vegetarians to eat together.
"I believe many people who go into these places, if they have a vegetarian or vegan option could have a significant impact on our food system," Baur says.
"Many of the health problems people are experiencing are diet-related," he continues. "We could save billions of dollars in health care and save enormous pain and suffering. It's in people's interest to eat food that doesn't make them sick. And there's a growing recognition of the environmental impact of animal agriculture as a leading cause of loss of biodiversity, as well as a contributor to air and water pollution."
These days, Baur lives near Washington D.C to work on policy issues and for greater access to the frequent traveling he does in pursuit of the goals he shares with Farm Sanctuary. He works on animal advocacy including humane treatment of farm animals, opposition to cloning for food production, promoting vegan diet and lifestyle, and generally raising awareness of how farm animals are treated. He's the author of two books, "Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food," and "Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day."
These days, one of these goals is to more widely introduce the "Impossible Burger" and "Beyond Burger"--meatless alternatives to traditional hamburgers--into the fast food diet. Made from pea protein, the "Beyond Burger" is available to consumers in a variety of places, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, Baur says, though the Impossible Burger, currently available at White Castle restaurants (where it's known as the Impossible slider), is harder to find for home chefs.
"The dominant form of food production is in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs) and industrial agriculture," Baur says. "Even on small farms where small quantities of animals are fed corn and soybeans, you're still feeding lots of grain at the front end. And that requires more resources than if you ate corn and soy directly."
"Burger King just announced they're selling the Impossible Whopper in St. Louis Missouri, and I imagine they'll introduce it in other parts of the country," Baur says. The Syracuse-based Carrols Corporation, which owns the Burger King brand, did not respond to requests for comment.
However, given the current high-profile rise of plant-based diets among celebrities and online foodies, it's likely the demand for vegetarian and vegan alternatives will remain high, influencing many eateries to adjust their menu to their customer base.