- Next Level Burger, which makes plant-based burgers, was founded in 2014 by Matt de Gruyter.
- The Oregon-based chain, backed by Whole Foods, announced a $20 million grant on Tuesday.
- Now he plans to make it three times bigger and steal part of McDonald’s, de Gruyter said.
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At 30, Matthew de Gruyter, oil and gas Venture Capital (VC), thought about his weekly meals of steaks, Whoppers and beef burritos; he estimates that he eats several kilos of red meat a week.
De Gruyter said that switching to a healthy diet made him stronger, more energetic and reduced his stress at work.
But when he examines his work and personal practice, de Gruyter realizes that it is contradictory to have a healthy diet to reduce carbon emissions while benefiting from billions of dollars in oil and gas.
“There is nothing more than going through oil and gas and underground wells and polluting the world for the benefit of pushing something through the plant spray,” de Gruyter told Insider.
In his quest to fit his work with this food, he quit his job and opened a restaurant serving burgers in 2014.
The quinoa and mushroom burgers were created from a recipe by his wife, Cierra.
Plant based burgers earned $20 million
The brand finally got the attention of two important entrepreneurs: Whole Foods and Alex Payne, who was an early Twitter employee.
The pair became the first sponsors of De Gruyter’s brand, Next Level Burger, which has grown to nine restaurants in six states.
The restaurant chain announced a $20 million raise Tuesday, spearheaded by Payne and his wife, Nicole Brodeur. Next Level plans to spend the money up to 28 locations by 2025.
De Gruyter’s goal in rapid growth is high: to gain share from McDonald’s by becoming a brand that people can go to because its burgers are not good for the environment, but also delicious and cheap.
“We want the question not to be ‘Why do you eat plants?’ to ‘Why not you?'” he said.
Plant-Based Burger Chain Opens in Central Oregon
De Gruyter quit his VC job in 2013 and moved his family to Bend, Oregon to build Next Level Burger.
The initiative, started with the money he received for investing in oil and gas, was opened in the summer of 2014.
Central Oregon has become the perfect place to test the model.
“It’s the Shangri-La of skiing and snowboarding, mountain biking and kayaking, hiking and climbing,” de Gruyter said.
Serendipity played a major role in its expansion. De Gruyter said that two months after opening, Payne and Brodeur entered Next Level Burger.
De Gruyter said Payne and Brodeur, who have invested in early-stage vegan and successful vegan companies, made a “seven-figure” investment in Next Stage.
The deal allowed de Gruyter to open a second restaurant in Portland in October 2015, where he says “lines were out the door six days” after it opened.
The success of plant-based burgers in Portland put them on the radar of Whole Foods Market
In July 2016, the two companies partnered to put a burger plant in the Whole Foods 365 store in Lake Oswego, an affluent area of Portland.
Whole Foods eventually became Next Level’s “largest investor” with minority stakes, said de Gruyter, who remains the majority owner.
Investment is critical to Next Level’s growth. Six of the next nine restaurants are located in Whole Foods stores in Oregon, Texas, New York, California and Washington.
“Without pioneers like Whole Foods and others, the world would not have been ready for NLB in 2014,” de Gruyter said.
Next Level plans to go after McDonald’s
De Gruyter, who turns 40 this year, estimates that 80% of Next Customers “are trans and are not vegetarian or vegan.”
“And we love to eat vegans and vegetarians,” he added, “but in the end, you’re not going to preach too far to the choir.”
These diners have a choice. Next Level is not the only plant-based or vegan restaurant in America; Other chains include Veggie Grill, Plant Power Fast Food, and PLNT Burger, which have about 50 locations in each.
Actor Kevin Hart recently opened a vegan restaurant, Hart House, in Los Angeles.
De Gruyter said that he sees other plant chains not as threats but as friends.
“Anyone who pushes climate change in the right direction, anyone who pushes sustainability in the right direction, I see it on our side of the field,” he said.
However, fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Panda Express, and KFC that have added burgers and chicken to their menu are a different story.
“I want to know more about the business partnership from McDonald’s and Red Robins around the world,” he said.
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