While the meat-free Impossible Whopper made its flashy debut at select Burger King locations in Florida, Alabama and Georgia in mid-May, a handful of Charleston restaurants months ago started serving plant-based patties from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods Inc. But the popularity of the fast-food burger may jeopardize their status on local menus.

Restaurant chains such as Red Robin and White Castle recently reported shortages of Impossible meat. Independent restaurants such as Commonhouse Aleworks and Chuck and Patty’s, both early purveyors of Impossible Foods, have also had to turn away customers looking for the burger alternative.

The scarcity, according to Impossible Foods spokeswoman Ashley Kranak, stems from “ramp-up challenges resulting from demand greatly outstripping supply.”

The California-based start-up has been around since 2011, but it has grown by 50 percent since January, when it launched the Impossible Burger 2.0. It produced an all-time record of product in May.

“It’s sort of making me mad,” Jacob Hunter, chef at Chuck and Patty’s, says. “It’s like, OK, you’re going into Burger King. You probably need to prepare for that.”

His annoyance stems from having to let down customers who have come to count on Chuck & Patty’s, a burger stand at Workshop, for their meatless burger fix: “I don’t want to tell them no.”

What exactly is it?

Commonhouse in North Charleston put an Impossible Foods burger on its menu in March, and owner Hank Hanna said it quickly became a customer favorite.

“It’s funny,” he said. “We had customers send the burger back because they didn’t believe it. They thought they were served a real hamburger.”

At Brown's Court, pastry chef Carrie Bach is using the meatless substance for flaky meat pies, rounded out with white cheddar cheese and tomato sauce.

“I’m not a vegetarian in any way, shape or form and never will be,” Bach said. “It’s pretty impressive that it literally tastes like meat. It’s just like ground beef.”

That reaction is what Impossible Foods engineered their burgers for: To emulate the taste and texture of a beef burger. The Impossible Whopper, for example, comes with the tagline, “Try it and don’t taste the difference.”

There is, of course, a difference.

Containing mostly organic ingredients, the patty is made with soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil and sunflower oil. Its “magic” ingredient is heme, an iron-rich molecule “primarily responsible for generating the unmistakable, craveable flavor and aroma of cooked meat,” according to an article published on Medium by the Impossible Foods team. Heme is also why the raw burgers appear to “bleed” when cut into.

Compared to the regular Whopper, the Impossible Whooper has 15 percent less fat and 90 percent less cholesterol. 

For Hunter, it has proven easier to make and sell Impossible burgers than other options. 

“I’ve never been happy making a veggie burger,” he said. “It’s a really long labor process.”

The patties from Impossible Foods aren’t cheap, though.

Hunter pays US Foods just under $4 per 4-ounce patty. That’s compared with about 75 cents for a 4-ounce beef patty. He sells the patty as a $4 add-on, so the total for customers comes to $12.

“I’m not trying to make money off it,” he said. “It’s more about bringing people to the business. It’s something good to offer. And it gets people talking.”

One of those people is Caroline Whitlock, who works at the nearby tech firm BoomTown. The 24-year-old stopped eating meat seven years ago and previously relied on black bean burgers to substitute one of her favorite meals.

She now goes to Chuck and Patty’s “every other day” for the vegan burger.

“I like the taste of meat, but I don’t like the cruelty of it,” she said. “So this is an amazing alternative for me.”

Shortage is short-term 

The Rarebit on King Street started serving an Impossible burger more than a year ago and was likely the first Charleston restaurant to carry the item. Others, such as Ye Ole Fashioned Ice Cream & Sandwich Cafe and Vintage Coffee & Cafe, have since started carrying Impossible Foods.

“It's amazing what the response has been from customers, many visiting from all over the world,” owner Richard Bloom said, noting tourists are pleasantly surprised to find the item there. “Many folks call ahead to make sure that we have it.”

Their $11 Impossible Burger is still available, including on UberEats; but, for other restaurants, the answer has been hit-and-miss.

US Foods in Charleston, which has supplied The Rarebit and others with Impossible Foods meat, won’t be getting another shipment until later this summer.

The Impossible Burger is now on menus in more than 8,000 restaurants around the world. And Kranak says more are on the way.

By the end of 2019, Burger King plans to roll out the Impossible Whopper in all of its 7,300 locations nationwide. Over the next two years, Impossible Foods also plans to enter an additional 7,000 establishments across the country, from independent restaurants to school cafeterias to more chains such as Hard Rock Cafe.

To keep up with demand, Kranak said the company is hiring more people, upping its manufacturing capacity, and the plant in Oakland, Calif., is now running 24/7. 

Stash is running low, for now

Commonhouse, though, isn’t waiting around. The brewpub earlier this month switched to carrying Beyond Meat burgers, which are made with pea protein instead of soy protein.

Brown’s Court started buying Impossible Foods patties from Sysco in early May and has yet to run out of the product. It carries the meatless meat pies most mornings.

“Many people walk in for one and come right back in the door for another,” Bach, the pastry chef, said. “It’s kind of wild.”

While they’re at the bakery counter, customers have also asked, “Are these going to be here tomorrow?”

“That’s our plan,” Bach said. "We hope to have them every day." 

Hunter, at Chuck and Patty’s, said his stash, which he keeps frozen, is running low. He already let his regulars, such as Whitlock, know he has fewer than 30 patties left.

"We're sort of left wondering when we'll get more," he said. 

Whitlock's response?

“I mean, it stinks,” she said. "A lot of people are obsessed with it, though, so Impossible Foods will figure it out."

In the meantime, she has been telling many of her friends, including vegetarians and meat-eaters, about the burger "that's not a real burger, but tastes like it."

“I think more people should know about it,” she said. “But I also don’t want them to, because I still want to be able to get it."

Reach Amanda Hancock at 843-937-5320. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda1hancock.