Reinventing America's Favorite Meal: Grateful Burger

PHOTO BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

Will we ever go for a hamburger that’s almost half mushrooms? Chris Nessen is betting on it.

Standing in Chris Nessen’s home kitchen in Beverly, I can’t shake the feeling that the chef and entrepreneur is disturbing sacred cows. Literally. In two cast-iron skillets over a stovetop flame, Nessen is flipping and prodding four hamburgers, their familiar sizzle and aroma filling the kitchen. But these patties are different: They’re comprised of 40% mushrooms, a combination of portabellas and white caps from Pennsylvania. The rest is the traditional Creekstone beef, with some fresh herbs and spices thrown in.

Nessen, a 63-year-old veteran in the New England food industry, tested and retested the recipe—playing with the now-secret blend of beef and fungi to perfect the consistency—right here in his Beverly kitchen, before launching the frozen blended burger brand Grateful Burger in mid-2017.

I bite into the moist patty, easily three-quarters of an inch thick, and can’t believe it was once frozen and shrink-wrapped. The flavor profile features the mushroomy umami not typically associated with hamburgers, and yet is juicier and more satisfying than some all-beef burgers I’ve eaten in pubs and steakhouses. Many students at New England colleges and universities, where Grateful Burgers were served exclusively throughout 2017 and much of this year, have taken to Nessen’s blended burger, which he says is healthier and requires less water to produce than an all-beef burger.

But my taste in food can be weird—as can college kids’, for that matter. As Grateful Burgers hit retail coolers this summer, will red-blooded New England consumers branch out and serve a blended patty at their next barbecue?

Disrupting ‘Big Beef’

For almost a century, the hamburger has earned its place as “America’s food.” In lawn chairs and on barstools, Americans eat burgers at a volume that some estimate at 50 billion per year. That’s three burgers every week, on average, for every man, woman and child in the United States. What’s more, almost three-quarters of all the beef consumed in restaurants is a hamburger.

And despite recent reports to the contrary, the animal protein industry has never been better: We’ll all eat, on average, 222 pounds of meat in 2018, the nation’s most carnivorous year since such data has been recorded.

But our burger habit is killing the planet—and ourselves. Raising cattle is incredibly land- and water-intensive, requiring 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of grain-fed beef and eight times more land to feed animals in the U.S. than humans. Livestock production is a famously central contributor to climate change—responsible for more than 14% of all global greenhouse gas emissions—and grass-fed beef is no better for the environment than grain-fed beef, the Oxford-based Food Climate Research Network told us last year. In fact, some environmental scientists predict we could run out of livestock pastures by mid-century under our ever-increasing global beef consumption. In terms of health risks, several peer-reviewed studies have linked regular red meat consumption with a higher likelihood of dying early from cardiovascular disease or various cancers.

A litany of veggie burgers has for years satiated—somewhat—the cravings of environmentally and health-conscious Americans who prefer their meals between two buns. But most traditional veggie burgers have lacked the meaty bite of an all-beef burger. More recent iterations, with names like The Impossible Burger and The Beyond Burger, seek to re-create the texture, the taste and even the red tint and “bleeding” of beef burgers with plant proteins, dyes and other additives.

The rise of blended burgers combines dual, seemingly conflicting truths: Americans ought to be eating less red meat than we do, and yet we are unlikely to give up eating beef hamburgers anytime soon. Chefs and entrepreneurs see the blended burger as a realistic step toward reducing our overall meat intake. A growing number of restaurants have added blended burgers to their menus, and the prestigious James Beard Foundation has for the last four years held a popular nationwide contest to find America’s favorite blended burger. In perhaps the best evidence of the mainstream promise of blended burgers, fast-food chain Sonic, in partnership with food conglomerate Cargill, recently added a burger to its drive-in menu that is made with 25% cooked mushrooms.

According to Nessen, this rising tide lifts all ships loaded down with blended burgers because it serves to educate the eating public on the virtues of cutting beef burgers with mushrooms. There’s a hole in the market, he says, for a “crossover” burger that appeals to those wanting to make healthier choices but unwilling to switch to a fully plant-based burger.

“We look at the Impossible Burger and all the fringe-type things that have gotten a lot of press, but where we stand is that we’re taking real food—not synthesized food—and reducing meat and replacing it with vegetables,” says Nessen. “We’re not trying to create something new, but it’s flavorful and people like it.”

From Campus to Consumer

Having launched new products for Legal Seafoods and founded and sold two local food companies, Chris Nessen is no stranger to culinary experimentation. To see if he had a winner in Grateful Burger, Nessen went to college. He’s been able to get his blended burger on the food service line at several universities, including Harvard, Tufts, Boston College, Dartmouth and the Universities of New Hampshire and Connecticut. He views universities as the perfect proving ground for a mission-driven product because of many students’ idealism and focus on health.

Chef and Harvard food service director Martin Breslin was among the first to taste an early iteration of the Grateful Burger in 2015, which at that time featured a 50/50 beef-to-mushroom ratio. He was underwhelmed, to say the least.

“The texture of the burger was quite off—very spongy, soggy,” Breslin remembers.

But Nessen and his team—which includes Kim Sherman and Chris’s son, Eric Nessen, crafting Grateful Burger’s story and Chef Claude Whiting out selling it—were relentless. Taking the feedback of the college taste-testers, they added 10 percent of the beef back to the burger and continued to bring it to Breslin until the chef deemed it Harvard-ready. Today, one in 10 meals served at Harvard’s grill stations, which also offer all-beef hamburgers, is a Grateful Burger—a 50% jump from a previous blended burger served there.

“One thing that’s for sure: If it didn’t taste good, it would not be one in 10,” says Breslin, who enjoys a Grateful Burger himself from time to time. “We look at our menus on a daily and weekly basis, and we can tell what’s moving and what’s not from our grill. If [students] aren’t taking it, we remove it.”

Grateful Burger’s university rollout has not always been smooth. Last fall, one Harvard Crimson columnist wrote that the Grateful Burger “tastes like beef pumped with chalk” and theorized that it’s “a transitional vegetarian plot to abolish burgers forever.” And at the University of Connecticut, Nessen says dining services hastily replaced all-beef burgers with his blended patties before informing students—who were none too pleased about the apparent deception.

But Nessen says that after re-launching with an education campaign about the burger’s health and environmental benefits, UConn is now re-ordering as many as 200 cases of Grateful Burgers every two weeks, and adds that “they’re seeing their whole student body shift away from beef in general.” Building on a year’s worth of data and feedback from New England’s campus cafeterias, the Grateful Burger team has its sights set on southern schools next.

“It’s a long game plan,” Nessen says. “We feel that by introducing it to the students, that they’re going to graduate and become employed and they’re going to be bigger consumers than they are today—and we’re going to be ready for them.”

GratefulBurgers-1802_WEB.jpg

‘Foraging forward’

Grateful Burger is also touting its newly launched retail line—which includes a blended turkey burger and chicken burger, as well as a traditional veggie patty—betting that families are seeking more healthful grilling options this barbecue season. If Nessen and team are right, they’ll have momentum to expand the line outside the region and seek the company’s first round of investor capital. (The Nessens have funded the startup themselves thus far.) But first, they may have to convince purists like Chef Richard Chudy, Boston’s resident burger critic and historian, who admits he has yet to try the Grateful Burger but remains skeptical of the concept.

“It may be tasty, but a burger it is not,” says Chudy, who co-authored American Burger Revival and maintains the Boston Burger Blog. “I’ll take my mushrooms nicely sautéed on top of my burger, thank you very much. And generally I want a burger, not a salad. If the goal is to eat a ‘healthier’ burger, it’s as easy as sourcing local, fresh beef and using thoughtful toppings.”

But Liz Weiss, a local dietitian and host of Liz’s Healthy Table podcast and blog, says blended burgers—even frozen ones—can get more vegetables into a family’s diet while removing some of the saturated fats, calories and sodium found in most all-beef patties. And mushrooms—which Weiss calls “kind of magical”—are full of vitamins B and D, as well as antioxidants and that rich umami flavor. “When you can spot a convenience food at the market that’s going to bring better nutrition to your table, I’d say go for it,” she says.

With all the burgers cooked and being heartily devoured, Nessen steps away from his stove, leans against the counter and crosses his arms. There’s clearly work to be done—proving the concept at retail and fundraising for expansion, to name two—but few would doubt Nessen is proud of the little company he founded in his tucked-away home in Beverly. He spreads his arms out and looks around the kitchen, then glances over at Kim Sherman and his son, Eric.

“This is who we are,” he says. “Foraging forward, as we say.”

gratefulburger.com

STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.