The owners of the vegan fast-casual concept Native Foods Café decided if they could make it in Chicago—home of cheesy deep-dish pizza and Vienna beef hot dogs—they could make it anywhere.
Founded in Palm Springs, California, by a vegan chef in 1994, Native Foods Café grew into a four-store chain before Daniel Dolan and Andrea McGinty purchased it in 2009. In the next two years, two more locations were added.
“I was a customer having lunch there three times a week and saw potential,” Dolan says. “The whole category of vegan [and] vegetarian fast casual was something no one had ever done on a national basis.”
In the first two years of owning Native Foods, Dolan and McGinty standardized the recipes and refined the concept.
“We were still only in Southern California and we would hear from people in the business world, ‘Sure it works in California, but is it a national chain?’” Dolan says. “So in 2011, we moved our headquarters to Chicago and opened three new stores there between 2011 and 2012. The new stores had sales equal to or higher than our California stores.”
Native Foods Café
Co-Owner, Chairman, & CEO:
Year Started: 1994
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 19
Franchise units: 0
Since then, Native Foods Café locations have opened in Denver and Portland, Oregon. Dolin says average sales and demand is fairly equal in all locations, and the concept is on the verge of going to the East Coast, with a store set to open in Washington, D.C., this summer. To facilitate the transition to national expansion, John Miller, former CFO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, joined Native Foods Café as its CFO in 2013.
The concept works nationally because it appeals to more than herbivores, Dolan says.
“Only 15 percent of our customers are vegan or vegetarian,” he says. “Most are omnivores who eat in our restaurants because they like our food. Our guests are people who want to get in and out in 30–40 minutes and want a better meal than typical fast food. So our competition is any fast-casual restaurant.”
Native Foods Café offers a menu of high-quality, scratch-made vegetarian and vegan items in three basic categories: sandwiches, salads, and bowls. Many menu items sound like they contain meat, but are made with wheat-based seitan or soy-based tempeh.
“We make our own tempeh and seitan,” Dolan says. “And we make eight versions of seitan. No one does that.”
The house-made seitan is formed and seasoned into meatballs in the Super Italian Meatball Sub, and it imitates corned beef in the Classic Deli Reuben. Native Foods Café also offers cheeseburgers and a steak sandwich made with seitan.
In the popular Yo Amigo Taco Salad, seitan taco meat is combined with romaine, cabbage, and salsa, topped with corn, green onion, cilantro, and tortilla chip croutons. It is served with a creamy chipotle dressing on the side for $8.95.
The most popular bowl item is the Rockin’ Moroccan, which is made with tofu marinated in homemade Moroccan sauce and is topped with grilled veggies, quinoa, currants, and toasted almonds.
“With the Reuben sandwich, people are convinced it is corned beef,” Dolan says. “That’s one of the things we do, is offer food that is familiar to people. If someone is nervous about ordering, we suggest a Reuben or meatball sub.”
Dolan says there isn’t a single item on the menu priced over $10. The average per person ticket is around $11, and a lot of those tickets include a dessert item.
“We sell a fair amount of desserts,” Dolan says. “More than a typical fast-casual restaurant. And we have desserts like zucchini date cake. You’re not going to see that at a typical fast casual.” From cupcakes to cheesecake, all desserts at Native Foods Café are vegan and made from scratch.
While dessert is easy to find, a Diet Coke is out of reach, as the concept does not offer soft drinks. Instead, it offers four kinds of iced tea, homemade lemonade steeped with lavender, and Watermelon Agua Fresca, which is fresh watermelon-flavored water with agave syrup and mint. Four wines and local craft beers are also available on the menu.
Dolan says Native Foods Café will open 15 new locations in 2014 and 25 in 2015. In the meantime, people who want Native Foods Café cuisine before a restaurant opens in their city can try making it at home.
“We have two cookbooks out and we’re working on a third,” Dolan says, adding that both are sold in stores and online. “We have monthly specials that are not on our regular menu, so we’re introducing at least 50 recipes a year, and we’re not shy about giving out our recipes.”