In August this year, a former Burger King restaurant in Encinitas, California, was taken over by another company which continued to serve burgers, fries and shakes via the drive-thru window. There was one major difference though: the items on the menu are all vegan.
Plant Power Fast Food moved into the premises previously occupied by the fast-food giant to open its second location after the successful launch of its flagship store in Ocean Beach, San Diego, just 18 months earlier in January, 2016.
Founders Jeffrey Harris, Zach Vouga and Mitch Wallis started Plant Power Fast Food to combat the impact that the consumption of animal products has had on the health of millions of Americans by providing a plant-based fast-food alternative. “The fast-food industry has successfully answered a need by providing a convenient way to get our meals on the go while at the same time delivering a consistent taste experience. The downside is that, by and large, this type of food isn’t very good for you,” says Harris. “Our goal has been to inspire people to begin to ask themselves some important questions about where our food comes from and perhaps to begin to think differently about their choices. But we’re not doing it in a way that’s preachy or confrontational.”
As well as containing no animal ingredients, the comfort food dishes on offer at Plant Power Fast Food are also free from cholesterol, GMO, artificial colorings, flavorings and preservatives, thereby appealing to people who want healthier fast-food options. “We’re really a plant-based, healthier version of McDonald’s, In & Out, Burger King, Wendy’s or Jack in the Box,” says Harris.
It’s a concept that’s proving to be popular, as demonstrated by a successful equity crowdfunding campaign in April this year that raised close to $400,000, as well as the company’s sales figures. In its first year, the Ocean Beach location turned over $1.1 million, with the second year tracking at $1.8 million by close of December 2017. Meanwhile, according to Harris, the newly opened Encinitas location is tracking $2.2 million for its first year, and the number of customers served by both restaurants by the end of the second year is estimated to be more than 1 million.
“Although we were only open for 11 months and six days in 2016, our San Diego location far exceeded our 12-month sales projections. That location is expected finish the second year of operations with growth of over 63% from the first year,” says Harris.
And here’s the kicker: It’s not vegans or vegetarians who are responsible for the company’s success. According to Harris, the vast majority of customers are “omnivores who want to try something new”.
Even though the company initially focused on opening in Southern California, the plan is to expand nationwide, eventually transitioning to a franchise model. “At the present time, our brand is apparently a bit bigger than our business and we regularly get requests to franchise our restaurants from all over the US and the world. The extraordinary interest is reflective of a big change in our society; one that we hope to be part of,” says Harris.
In the short term the company is in the process of completing a commissary which will allow it to centralize food production and distribute to locations throughout Southern California. It’s also actively scouting for locations in the Inland Empire, Orange County and Los Angeles County and hopes to put two or three new restaurants into development in the next six to eight months. “As we expand our company infrastructure we feel that it will be easier to expand more rapidly and we’d like to be able to open several locations a year within the next 24 months,” says Harris.
The rise of fast-casual vegan eateries
While Plant Power Fast Food is positioning itself as a classic fast-food alternative to McDonald’s, complete with quick service and drive thru, fast-casual plant-based restaurants are also experiencing significant growth.
Since the opening of its first store on Bleecker Street in New York’s West Village two and a half years ago in July, 2015, by CHLOE. has quickly established itself as a popular plant-based ‘grab and go’ eatery, with lines regularly out the door. Featuring its house-made burgers (including the best-selling guac burger), fries, shakes, pasta, salad, sides and desserts, the company was originally conceived as a partnership between vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli and Samantha Wasser of international restaurant and hospitality firm ESquared Hospitality. In March this year Coscarelli was ousted after an arbitration hearing. Despite this, the brand has seen fast expansion. It currently has five outlets in New York, two in Boston and one in Los Angeles, with plans to open its first location in Providence, Rhode Island, before the end of the year near Brown University, followed by another in New York City, and a third Boston location in 2018. It also has two locations planned for London, UK, in early 2018 and is eyeing several additional international locations.
“While our expansion has been fast, it has been carefully and specifically chosen for what’s best for our brand and our customers. Because we are so popular with a high demand, if we didn’t expand, some other concept would fill the void,” says Wasser.
When it comes to deciding in which locations to open, by CHLOE. prioritizes foot traffic and the neighborhood as a whole. “A combination of lifestyle elements like shopping and workout studios is important, plus businesses and residential buildings to keep business consistent,” says Wasser. “With our 22nd Street location [in New York], we saw a need in a very high-traffic neighborhood. For our Los Angeles location, 365 by Whole Foods Market came to us with a great opportunity so we chose to expand to the West Coast. With our locations in the Boston Seaport and Fenway we were excited to go into neighborhoods seeing a ton of growth and development. Each location is approached and considered differently.”
According to Wasser, by CHLOE. currently serves approximately 40,000 customers a week and she projects that the company’s revenues in 2018 will be around $40 million. And, as with Plant Power Fast Food, it’s not vegans who are driving the success of by CHLOE. “Our clientele varies by location and neighborhood but a strong majority is made of up college students and young professionals, who have been a strong demographic for us since we first opened. Outside of that, our clientele is extremely diverse including millennials, young families, tourists and more,” explains Wasser.
Fast-casual ‘veggie-centric’ pioneer also expanding
While Plant Power Fast Food and by CHLOE. are the new kids on the block, Veggie Grill has pioneered fast-casual plant-based eating since 2005. Currently with 28 locations on the West Coast, it raised $22 million in investment in late 2016 to expand the chain nationwide.
“We stayed close to our Los Angeles base and expanded up and down the West Coast during that time and were able to optimize our menu platform, operational infrastructure and real-estate model,” says co-founder T.K. Pillan. “We’re now ready to step on the gas and the timing is right as over the past few years interest in plant-based foods has really spiked.”
The company has several locations under development in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, with plans to look for premises in New York. “Finding the right locations is really our gating factor, but I’d say we’ll have at least a dozen new locations in the next 12 to 24 months and hopefully more,” says Pillan.
Unlike Plant Powered Fast Food, which foresees franchising in its long-term expansion, Veggie Grill plans to stick to a corporate-owned model. “There are a lot of moving parts from food prep to service to deliver the Veggie Grill experience, and given that complexity we don’t plan on franchising anytime in the near future,” says Pillan.
Yet again, the majority of customers at Veggie Grill are not vegan; instead they comprise those who are trying to reduce their meat and dairy intake for both health and environmental reasons. While he declined to reveal sales figures, Pillan says they are “well above the average for fast-casual restaurants and our year-over-year sales are also well above average.”
Vegan vending machines are now a thing
If plant-based fast-food restaurants weren’t enough, now there are vegan vending machines. One popped up just last month in Melbourne, Australia. Installed by Spring Street Grocer, the ‘24-hour vegan’ machine offers a range of snacks, including salads, sandwiches, chocolate, organic juices and kombucha.
Meanwhile in the San Francisco Bay Area, mobile cupboards are providing healthy, plant-based snacks in hospitals and other facilities. Lamiaa Bounahmidi, founder and CEO of leCupboard, the company behind the initiative, is keen to stress that these are not traditional vending machines. “Our mission is not to trigger consumption when it’s not needed but to provide a trusted safe space where you can get meals that enhance your health while protecting the planet. It’s not about being a vending machine serving salads. It’s not automation for the sake of automation but rather a fully integrated network to make large-scale preventative healthcare through delicious food people are happy to eat every day,” says Bounahmidi.
leCupboard soft launched almost 10 months ago after more than four years conducting research and development. Currently there are 15 mobile cupboards in private facilities and the company is aiming to install them in public locations down the track. According to Bounahmidi, leCupboard has been doubling sales volumes month over month and some locations are asking for an additional cupboard in the same building.
Similar to the plant-based fast-food restaurants, more than 80% of leCupboard’s customers are not vegan, proving that this way of eating is quickly becoming popular with those seeking convenience combined with nutrient-dense, healthy food.
The future of fast food
As more people from all walks of life continue to recognize the benefits to their health, animals and the planet of plant-based eating, they will continue to seek out healthy, vegan, fast-food options. Even McDonald’s has taken note and is currently carrying out small-scale tests for a vegan burger in Finland.
Harris sees this move by the fast-food giant as a step in the right direction, but believes plant-based fast-food restaurants are the future. “It may be challenging for mature brands to gradually pivot towards a plant-based model in a way that doesn’t alienate their existing customer base. Also, I think that more and more consumers are drawn towards brands which feel authentic and which reflect a deeper vision to improve and heal the world that we all share,” he says.
Pillan, who also funds other plant-based brands through his role with PowerPlant Ventures venture capital fund, agrees. “I predict similar to specialty coffee that the overall market will continue to expand. Consumer awareness and demand will continue to grow. Non-vegetarian restaurants will continue to expand their offerings, but pure plant-based restaurants will continue to offer the best depth and breadth of offerings given their focus.”
First published on Forbes