According to Datassential, 29 percent of the American population limits meat consumption in some manner. Furthermore, 28 percent say they prefer plant-based over animal proteins. What does this add up to? A sizable opportunity for restaurants. Americans’ reasons for avoiding meat products vary. Some are taking a stance against the killing of animals and their byproducts; others are switching because rearing animals for meat takes a toll on the environment; others simply want to be healthier.

Steele Smiley falls into all of those categories, but especially the latter. He launched his fast casual, Stalk & Spade, last year and has three locations with 10 projected by the first quarter of 2023.

Stalk & Spade offers 100 percent plant-based food including burgers, chick’n sandwiches, and salads. It’s important to Smiley the meals taste like the meat dishes they mimic. “We won’t put something on the menu unless it tastes like the classic original,” he says.

But Smiley doesn’t work with external companies—all R&D is done in-house and the food is proprietary. “We’re the only fast-food chain that owns its own supply chain,” he says.

Matt de Gruyter launched Next Level Burger in 2014 with the goal of improving consumers’ health and being climate friendly. 

There are now nine locations and de Gruyter, CEO and founder, opened a Denver flagship in August.

It’ll come as no surprise the nascent chain offers burgers and fries, but also brats, salads, chik’n burgers and meals, and shakes. Next Level’s signature patty is an organic quinoa and mushroom offering that’s made in-house. It also menus Beyond Meat burgers. Working with other companies just makes sense for them, de Gruyter says. “There are companies spendng hundreds of millions of dollars in developing the best plant-based food. We don’t have to figure out how to take it to the next level; instead we can be a gateway for people to eat the best of the best.”

Carin Stutz is the president and CEO of Native Foods, which offers a diverse menu featuring vegan comfort foods from burgers to entrees like cauliflower chickpea shawarma bowl, street tacos, and nachos. 

Native Foods creates as many of its proteins in-house as it can, but like de Gruyter, Stutz is open to working with third parties. “If they can make something better than me and it’s good, clean ingredients, I’m interested,” she says. 

Customer counts

Stalk & Spade is attracting a broad demographic. Younger generations, however, “are truly driving this trend,” Smiley says. “They are plant-positive and choosing to live that lifestyle. However, he adds, “people in their 50s and 60s are making the change because they want to be around as long as possible.” 

De Gruyter’s goal with Next Level Burger was to appeal to a broad audience, too. “If you’re only attracting a slice of people, you’re limiting your income.” So, he aims to serve both the consumer who’s looking for a plant-based meal that closely resembles meat, and the vegan who doesn’t want to be reminded of animals. And he has options for both on the menu. 

Native Foods’ customers are also wide-ranging, and not just vegans, says Stutz, who notes today’s guest might tap plant-based foods just a few nights a week, while eating meat on other days. 

Without appealing to all demographics, a restaurant chain won’t thrive, Stutz says. “Studies show that only 3 to 6 percent of people claim to be vegan, so plant-based restaurants that want to grow simply can’t survive on those numbers,” she says. “We therefore must make food that’s so delicious and approachable that everyone will want to try it. We must start by attracting the flexitarian.”

She also has items that resemble meat and some that don’t. “For the person who comes in for the first time we know certain items will be pretty close to what they’re familiar with,” she says. So staff are trained, Stutz adds, to steer the first-time guest toward more familiar items.

However, she points out, “the plant-based guest is the most adventuresome guest I’ve ever seen. Their willingness to try anything makes it really fun to put new items out there for them and they give you feedback.” Native Foods offers a monthly special, such as a fried green tomato BLT or a wasabi crabcake sandwich, as well as seven or eight dishes that change seasonally “so we can keep things fresh,” she says, adding “inspiration is everywhere, whether it comes from foreign cuisines or popular lifestyle foods.”

The road ahead

Stalk & Spade is largely focusing on urban areas for development, “because there’s more awareness there,” Smiley says. But he notes the suburban market “is where the real opportunity lies.” His first stores were in suburban areas, because “we always prove in a suburban market first. You don’t have a brand if it can’t be successful in the suburbs.”

He plans to grow via franchising, which will be about 90 percent of locations, and already has a large base of operators through his other concept, Crisp & Green. “They’re looking for more brands,” he says, “so we don’t need to go out and find new partners and it allows us to scale relatively quickly.” 

Native Foods has 12 corporate locations and expects to open its 13th by the first quarter of next year. It may consider franchising down the road, Stutz says.

The chain has changed plans from urban to suburban. “The pandemic made us think about the diversity of our portfolio and we’re moving into the suburbs,” she says. “This is no longer a trend; plant-based dining is here to stay and there’s a lot of white space in the suburbs.”

Next Level Burger has nine restaurants, six of which are located within Whole Foods, but de Gruyter expects to grow mostly through standalone venues. He expects to quadruple his footprint from the beginning of this year when he had seven units, to 28 by the end of 2025, with an ultimate goal of 1,000. 

“We’re looking to invest in a community that responds enthusiastically to our presence,” he says. “We’re not trying to be a commodity; we want to have relationships.”

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Growth, Menu Innovations, Story, Native Foods Cafe, Next Level Burger, Stalk & Spade