On this July 4th, where's the beef? Not here.
Companies developing beef alternatives are having great success with consumers and investors. Beyond Meat priced its initial public offering at $25 a share on May 1 and is now hovering at $150. Impossible Burger is a private company and is everywhere: fine dining establishments, casual restaurants, sports arenas, and even Burger King and White Castle chains.
It's not just the high-tech and venture capital-backed crowd doing well in the plant-based food space. Privately-held Dr. Praeger's Purely Sensible Foods is 25 years old and is approaching $100 million in annual sales. Morningstar Farms, a widely distributed brand of soy-based meat substitutes, has been around since 1975.
Meat substitutes are still a far cry from taking over a big part of America's holiday grills. But changing times combined with clever marketing have taken an old concept and turned it into a buzzworthy consumer trend.
Long history of promotion, failure
Meat substitutes had a long history of promotion alternating with commercial failure.
John Harvey Kellogg—brother of William Keith Kellogg, who founded the Kellogg Company, the cereal maker that currently owns of the Morningstar Farm brand—invented the first vegetable meat substitute in the 1890s, according to Adrienne Bitar, food historian and postdoctoral associate at Cornell University's department of history. It was a combination of gluten and peanuts called Protose that focused on food safety and which Kellogg said was actually a form of meat, not a substitute.
"Beef was poorly regulated and was easily contaminated," Bitar said. It met with eventual failure. "Regular beef got cheaper, safer, and more accessible. It was more difficult to sell vegetable meat if animal meat became more affordable and safer."
Then the U.S. government recognized a need for meat replacements starting in World War I because of shortages. Rationing drove another wave of would-be meat replacements in the World War II. Once the pressure was off, the vast majority turned back to meat.
Starting about 25 years ago, meat alternative companies began selling plant-based items like tofu or black bean burgers. Over time, more people have gravitated to a healthier eating message. Dr. Praeger's has seen 30% to 35% annual year-over-year growth for the past five years, according to CEO Larry Praeger. The emphasis was still on an alternative to meat, not a direct substitute. "We've been making veggie-based products that taste like vegetables for a long time," Praeger said.
Things began to change a few years ago with the advent of Beyond and Impossible and their twist on marketing thanks to climate change and concerns about how the livestock industry might contribute to the increase of greenhouse gases because of methane emissions from animals. "For 25 years, we've been focused on getting people to eat better," Praeger said. "Those companies are very focused on environmental and going after the meat industry."
"We know 95% plus of our consumers are carnivores," said Impossible Chief Financial Officer David Lee. "What's not new news is we meat eaters have long wanted something as credible as a juicy burger from a cow but that didn't make us feel as guilty about the impact on our health and the environment."
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods invested a significant amount in research and development ''to create a product that really emulates hamburger meat," said Jeffrey Robards, managing director and global head of consumer foods at mid-market investment banking and asset management firm Alantra.
Right now there's a mix of two messages that seem to be attracting customers.
"I think there is the market that likes a black bean burger and they like that veggie burger taste because they don't like the taste of meat or want a replacement," said Scott Swiger, vice president of culinary excellence at food service operator Spectra, which introduced Impossible burgers at such venues as the Oakland Coliseum and the Met Philadelphia. "They're capturing some of those folks but also some people who like meat but perceive the plant-based option as healthier—I think the jury's out as to whether they are healthier—and lower environmental impact."
What really has set things off is old-fashioned marketing designed to generate buzz.
Beyond had the hot IPO and has been distributing its product through consumer outlets such as Whole Foods. Impossible appeared first at fine dining establishments, creating a sense of exclusivity, then at casual dining spots, and finally through fast food chains.
"Our initial strategy was to be in the hands of celebrity chefs because we knew the way they served our product would be credible to meat eaters and we knew that would be well prepared," Impossible's Lee said. "We're counting on a grassroots movement led not just by pop icons like Katie Perry but people you know on social media."
"With all the awareness that's come to the category, it's reinvigorated everyone," Praeger said. "In the past few years, those guys have brought a lot of attention to the category." In addition to their traditional vegan, gluten-free and soy-free products, Dr. Praeger's has come out with a burger replacement.
Early success is there. The combination of meat replacements and traditional meat alternative products has seen growth of more than 254% in overall customer purchases from 2018 to 2019 for Dining Alliance, a purchasing organization for independent restaurants, said CEO Christina Donahue.
That's still a drop on the meat platter. The organization purchases $7.5 billion collectively of protein-related products. Only 0.08% of that is meat replacement or alternative. Not only does the industry need more promotion, but lower prices.
"It's much more expensive," said Paul Abdo, vice president and chief marketing officer of My Burger, a seven-location chain in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. He and Spectra's Swiger agree that, at least for Impossible, the product is roughly three times as expensive as ground beef. That makes broad consumer acceptance more difficult.
Brandon McFadden, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Delaware, wonders if "part of the reason Impossible Burger has not been scaled up so much is that they're trying to [manage] the cost."
Then there's push back on issues like labeling. According to McFadden, Missouri passed a law that "you couldn't call something meat or a burger unless it was derived from an animal." If companies can't call their products meat or burgers, or maybe even sausages, gaining the attention of carnivores becomes much harder.
Still, if the meat substitute companies have their way, they'll one day get consumers to think `beef, it's what's not for dinner.'
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—What Jony Ive’s departure means for Apple’s stock
—4 reasons to be skeptical about Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency
—Bank of America CEO: “We want a cashless society”
—Will Facebook’s Libra become the go-to payment system where banks fall short?
—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.