via Sam Oches (Nation’s Restaurant News)
The entirely plant-based concept, which serves burg’rs, chick’n sandwiches, salads, tenders, fries, tots and milkshakes that are all made without antibiotics, hormones, artificial colors, preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup, will open its first location in L.A.’s Westchester neighborhood on August 25.
The company joins a string of other quick-service concepts that are trying to scale nationally with plant-based alternatives to fast-food staples like burgers and chicken sandwiches. It could be a turning point for the category, which has been buzzy but also fairly niche; according to data from wellness-focused data firm SPINS, the total plant-based food market represented about $7.4 billion in revenue in 2021, up 6% over the previous year.
Andy Hooper, CEO and founding partner at Hart House, said the plant-based movement has struggled to take off in the limited-service sector because it’s hard to crack the habits, behaviors and perceptions of the average American consumer, who likely eats fast food at least on a monthly if not weekly basis. The key to doing so, he said, is serving “absolutely delicious, craveable food” that appeals to vegans and carnivores alike.
“If you fast forward 10 years, I am convinced that a huge percentage of what people eat will be plant based, not out of virtue, but out of necessity, out of supply chain, certainly out of health and wellness,” he said. “Our perspective is like, why not go there first through taste and craveability more than anything so that people understand that they actually don’t have to give anything up, including their existing fast food?”
To create a menu that had universal appeal, Hart House brought on Mike Salem, formerly the head of culinary innovation at Burger King, to serve the same function at the plant-based concept. Salem, who was responsible for the rollout of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King, spent months developing proprietary protein analogs that serve as the foundation of the burg’rs, chick’n sandwiches and tenders.
“Our analogs are at such a strong level, I can give you one of our analogs without any other accoutrement — no brioche bun, no sauce — and I can put that right up against the traditional animal protein and I’ll challenge you to tell the difference,” he said. “From there I can build dramatic flavor improvements and ubiquity for the customer.”
Not only is flavor key, but so is price. Hooper said that Hart wanted to open the concept as a “passion project,” one that made healthier, plant-based items more affordable and accessible to everyday consumers. Such items have so far skewed more expensive than standard proteins.
Hart House plans to eventually be side-by-side with the quick-serve giants like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, and Hooper said a comparable price to those companies was table stakes.
“We want to be plant-based for the people; not for the people in Hollywood who can afford a $19 burger, but for all the people — for Kansas City, for Compton, for Tallahassee, for Jacksonville, for Minneapolis,” Hooper said. “So you’ll see our burg’rs and chick’n sandwiches are at the $5, $6, $7 price point, not at the $12, $13, $14 price point.”
While affordability and accessibility will certainly help Hart House as it scales, the ace up the sleeve may in fact be Hart. One of the biggest stars in Hollywood, he’s known both for his stand-up comedy as well as for films like “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “Ride Along” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” His massive following draws instant credibility to the concept.
“That’s one of the real big benefits of Kevin as a business partner,” Hooper said, “that he can tweet and 200 million people know what we’re doing.”
Hooper is quick to add that Hart isn’t just a face or a name for the brand. The actor was involved in the menu development and personally signed off on the items. He even showed up to help train the employees for the first location.
“When Kevin drives himself to the restaurant, parks in front of the restaurant, walks in the front door and is like ‘I’m here, let’s do this, let’s start orientation,’ I think that sends a really strong message about the level of commitment that he has to it,” Hooper said.
Hart House has several locations already in the pipeline in Southern California, Hooper said, with national expansion planned for the coming years.