Chef Spike Mendelsohn cares about the future of food. In the past few years, the restaurateur, celebrity chef and food policy advocate founded two brands that have the potential to change the way people eat and think about eating: PLNT Burger and Eat the Change. The former—a vegan fast food chain with 11 locations (10 of which are inside of Whole Foods stores)—has become a cherished destination for its delicious 100% plant-based burger; the latter is a snack company that’s emphasizing the power and flavor of fungi and vegetables. Earlier this year, Mendelsohn opened PLNT Burger’s first-ever independent brick-and-mortar storefront nearby NYC’s Union Square. This year will see even more expansion and, with it, greater conversations about plant-based dining.
“The funny thing is, I was never really into plant-based anything except for the natural vegetables that I’d work with,” Mendelsohn tells COOL HUNTING. “I was never out there preaching veganism or vegetarianism. But then I started working on a lot of food policy in the DC area and getting intrigued by how a plant-based lifestyle can really help our food systems. I ended up on a panel with Seth Goldman from Honest Tea and Beyond Meat. He brought a cooler full of both and snuck it under my seat. He said, ‘I heard you’re the king of burgers. I’d love for you to take this home and let me know what you think.’ I said thank you but kind of scoffed at it.”
Still, Mendelsohn gave it a try for the sake of his wife. “She’s vegan and I knew we’d always struggled in the burger category. She didn’t like bean burgers. Everything was always falling apart or too moist. I cooked these burgers on the grill in my backyard and I was baffled by how well they cooked. They had a reaction just like meat and they tasted fabulous. A lightbulb went off in my head. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, so I emailed Seth and said, ‘You’re onto something here. I’d love to do a little more discovery with you.'” Mendelsohn began to partner with Beyond Meat, from content creation to recipe development. And then, when Goldman brought Beyond Meat to IPO, Mendelsohn began to bug him about opening a burger shack.
Goldman began to explore the formation of another startup and an opportunity arose to test a plant-based burger joint concept in Whole Foods. “Their stores have these kiosks and the one in Silver Spring, Maryland at the time, was vacant. We went in there, in 110 square feet and started PLNT Burger.” At that time, all the ingredients they needed were found in that very Whole Foods. “Doing a proof-of-concept in a Whole Foods is genius. On one hand, to source completely from Whole Foods, with their level of transparency, meant we were only using the best of the best plant-based foods. On top of that, we were highlighting all of their new products in the plant-based space that people were just starting to get familiar with—from Follow Your Heart cheese to mayonnaise. We were the sum of a bunch of Whole Foods ingredients cooked properly.”
Growth came through the team’s talent and commitment, their offerings being utterly delectable and a little bit of luck. “We launched a month and a half before the pandemic hit,” Mendelsohn explains. “As regulations rolled out, Whole Foods was deemed an essential business which meant that we were one as well, even though their hot food area became dormant.” To drive traffic outside of those arriving only for the Whole Foods, they developed their own PLNT Burger app to bring people in safely. Soon after, they were offered a second kiosk in another store, and then another. After they reached 10 stores, PLNT Burger opened up their first brick-and-mortar outside of a Whole Foods.
The burger really is something special. It’s mouthwatering, familiar and indulgent. “Innovation hadn’t taken a turn toward flavor in products for vegans and vegetarians but that’s what we are experiencing now,” Mendelsohn says. “I would not be able to do this if I did not have delicious plant-based cheese that could melt and a fantastic dairy-free mayonnaise and a Beyond Meat burger that cooks and tastes like a burger.” It also comes down to the PLNT Burger staff and the way they prepare, season and grill their burgers.
To be able to make plant-based foods more affordable definitely democratizes the movement
With this success, PLNT Burger has the ability to influence future developments in the plant-based market because the fast casual and fast food categories are so much more accessible. “The fast casual movement has been happening for a decade, with less fuss but equal innovation. It’s also about price point and positioning. To be able to make plant-based foods more affordable definitely democratizes the movement. And that’s where you start to push the needle,” Mendelsohn says.
Eat the Change was born from PLNT Burger’s slogan: eat the change you wish to see in the world. Through the brand’s snacks, Mendelsohn highlights biodiversity and avoids the most common ingredients that dominate the world’s food production: refined sugar, coconut, potatoes, rice and wheat. “Plant-based foods are on the rise and snackification—where people are eating on the go and getting their proteins from snacks—is also on the rise,” he says. Eat the Change exists at the intersection of snackification and eco-anxiety. “People understand that our food production needs to change and what and how we grow has an effect on our planet,” he explains. “We all know that our food system has a big effect on climate change. Both PLNT Burger and Eat the Change intend to influence this.”
“I am living my dream now,” Mendelsohn says. “I have been working really hard in this business for quite some time and I’ve always loved it, but I finally found the culmination of what I’ve been working on. I want to be a disruptor in the space and be ahead of what’s happening. Now it’s about building this dream bigger to have an imprint on our food system.” And with something so delicious, that dream is absolutely possible.
Images courtesy of PLNT Burger