Maine is home to at least five veggie burger companies, and despite – or because of the pandemic – most are reporting increased demand and a broadening customer base. That’s not to say it’s been easy.

Blue Mango, the state’s most widely known veggie burger company, has been the hardest hit by the pandemic. At the start of March, the company was selling its two burger varieties in 462 restaurants across New England.

“I lost over 400 restaurant accounts because of coronavirus,” said Constantino Lallo, who founded the company in 2008. “The retail sector has gone up considerably, but it won’t replace it.”

Blue Mango’s overall sales have plunged 65 percent since the crisis began, Lallo said, with all the losses coming from restaurant accounts. But his retail sales have jumped 35 percent since March.

The Blue Mango veggie burger comes in original and ginger-beet varieties. Because of the pandemic, the company is shifting from restaurant sales to supermarket sales. Photo courtesy of Blue Mango

Last year, Blue Mango’s busiest year to-date, Lallo sold close to 200,000 burgers, and he says he was on track to do even better this year. But the pandemic forced a shift in strategy from food service toward retail. Now, Whole Foods and Hannaford are his largest accounts, and he’s in talks with other supermarkets in the Northeast that are looking to expand their plant-based offerings.

The Veggie Life burger company in The Forks also altered its business model this spring. Before the pandemic, its veggie burgers were available only in restaurants. Because the veggie burgers are sold frozen (as are all Maine-made veggie burgers), owner Jaime Shaw had increased production in late winter to fill her freezers ahead of an anticipated busy spring and summer seasons for restaurants. Then the state went into lockdown.

In response, the company — like many others— shifted to online sales direct to consumers.”The first three days my online store was active I had over 40 orders,” Shaw said. Direct sales to home cooks have continued to be brisk as the restaurants have cautiously reopened, she said, and Veggie Life burgers picked up its first grocery store account — Tranton’s Market in Kingfield.

Shaw launched the company in 2009 with one customer, the Inn by the River in The Forks, where she is the innkeeper. In 2019, she began wholesaling the burgers to other restaurants. When the restaurant inside the Inn by the River reopened this spring, Shaw noticed a spike in veggie burger sales. “We’ve sold more since we opened at the end of May than we sold in most of last summer,” Shaw said.

The Taste of Eden Vegan Cafe in Norway has also reopened for dine-in business, and while restaurant sales are down, overall sales of its frozen meals, including its veggie burgers, are way up. Five years ago, the restaurant started selling  a range of frozen meals at its Main Street shop, but Yummy Burgers are the only Taste of Eden product sold in Maine grocery stores.

“In April and May, we couldn’t keep up with the requests,” said Sonya Tardif, who owns Taste of Eden with her husband, Michael Tardif. The restaurant remained open for takeout throughout the crisis. “It’s slowed down for now, but we’re still doing fairly well.”

The Taste of Eden Vegan Cafe in Norway has stayed busy during the pandemic selling its frozen meals, including its Yummy Burgers. Photo courtesy of Taste of Eden

Taste of Eden also launched a pilot project delivering a range of its fresh and frozen food items to residents of one retirement community in Brunswick. Tardif said the experiment is going well, and they’d like to expand the delivery service.

Tardif has also noticed an expanded customer base for veggie burgers. “We’re seeing 50- or 60-year-olds who come in and say they’re going vegan,” Tardif said “We start them on the veggie burgers because it’s something easy and familiar, and now they’re coming back every week.”

Lallo at Blue Mango has noticed the same trend. “Now people my age, and I’m 62, are thinking out loud about what they eat. Less red meat. Less pork, ” Lallo said. “The veggie and vegan movement has really boomed.”

When I talked with Maria Fleming, who owns Little Lad’s in Corinth, in the spring, she reported that the company was experiencing the same wild swings in demand as were supermarkets at the start of the lockdown. More recently, Fleming said sales have evened out for all of the company’s more than 100 vegan foods, including its First Hand Burgers.

“We call them First Hand Burgers because when you are eating animal flesh you are eating your grains and vegetables secondhand,” Fleming explained. “The whole point of having a veggie burger is having your veggies firsthand.”

The Little Lad’s burgers were developed 25 years ago in the original Little Lad’s cafe in Woolwich. Today, the company’s production facility produces about 900 veggie burgers each week, which are stocked by a number of grocery stores (and one restaurant – Clayton’s in Yarmouth).

The Freshiez Super Burger has experienced its highest sales during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Freshiez

Certified organic Freshiez Super Burgers were launched in 2017 by Wesley Acker, who sells to both grocery stores and food service accounts. Last fall, Freshiez’s production hit maximum capacity when the University of California Health added the Freshiez Super Burgers to its menus at both hospital campuses in San Diego.

“They are still open and serving,” Acker told me. “The pandemic has had an impact on food service sales, due to restaurants operating at limited capacity, but I had my busiest winter to date. Therefore, as a small, one-man operation, I was able to adjust … Thankfully none of my clients have gone out of business and most have continued to order regularly.”

Acker, who makes the burgers at the Freshiez commercial kitchen in Casco using mushrooms, potatoes, black beans and oats, said, “The next step is scaling up.”

All of the Maine-made veggie burgers contain a similarly short list of simple, whole-foods ingredients. The original Blue Mango burgers are made from rice, black beans, panko bread crumbs and spinach; the Taste of Eden burger from pecans, oats, onions and herbs; The Veggie Life burger from quinoa, almonds, carrots and onions; and the First Hand Burgers from oats and seeds. Veggie burgers differ from the new generation of realistic plant-based meats, such as the Beyond Meat and Impossible burgers, in that the latter are meant to imitate hamburgers while veggie burgers retain the flavor and texture of grains, nuts and vegetables.

Maine’s veggie burger makers say they think current events, including concerns about the safety of meat coming from other countries, have contributed to the appeal of their products, especially in Maine.

“It makes sense that people with so much nature and beauty in their backyard would be environmental stewards and pay attention to healthy living and eating,” Shaw said.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter:AveryYaleKamila


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