The plant-based protein market has taken some hits recently as demand for meat analogs seems to have subsided. But Hart House, the limited-service restaurant whose celebrity front man, Kevin Hart, is not just the face of the brand but also an investor, is thriving through the sale of vegan burgers, chicken-like sandwiches, and shakes.
With four units open in Los Angeles, including one with a drive-thru, and more leases signed in Los Angeles and neighboring Orange County, the chain’s mission is not merely to serve great meatless food, but great food, period, intended to compete with mainstream fast-food chains.
A Hart House sandwich starts at around $7 and meals are under $15.
“The fact that it happens to be made from plants is a bit more of a subtext than the headline,” CEO Andy Hooper said. “That is how plant-based foods will become more widely adopted and popular.”
Given the rising costs of animal protein, the realities of climate change, and consumers’ increasing acceptance of meatless entrées, Hooper sees meatless food as a logical approach if one wants to create a chain that will last, and grow, in the coming decades.
Hart House’s strategy of providing food that’s tasty, affordable, and convenient — the three main things that the average consumer is looking for — is paying off so far.
“We continue to be really, really pleased with the reception the brand is getting,” Hooper said.
“It feels very different, candidly, than the narrative on plant-based food broadly speaking right now, which is both really validating and also gets me pretty optimistic about how much of an opportunity there is to be the 2.0 version of what plant-based means.”
To Hooper, that means developing proprietary beef and chicken analogs, and pea protein-based shakes, that can compete favorably on taste as well as price against their animal-based counterparts.
Hooper says the shakes are so good that he prefers them to dairy shakes, “hands down.”
He said business was steady through the fall, and sales for all of 2023 were up by 350%, thanks in part to the fact that two new Hart House locations opened during the year. But the restaurants that have been open for at least 12 months are “positively comping right now, which is really exciting.”
The first Hart House opened on Aug. 25, 2022.
Hooper himself is a veteran of the restaurant industry, previously as president of &pizza. Before that he was chief concept officer and chief people officer of Café Rio Mexican Grill, and prior to that he was senior director for human resources at Burger King. The employee focus of &pizza and Hooper’s own HR experience have translated to a model for Hart House employees that includes wages and benefits intended to create a positive work environment and reduce turnover.
That’s one reason that, for now, Hart House’s expansion will be through company-owned restaurants rather than franchising.
“We’ve got some pretty strong points of view around employee benefits and pay; that’s always a trickier needle to thread with franchisees,” he said. Besides, Hooper said, it’s important to get a concept well dialed in before offering it to others.
Hooper said he’s not yet sure whether 2024 will see Hart House expand beyond Southern California, but he said Atlanta and greater Washington, D.C., are target markets that are “under development.”
He said he doesn’t want to open one-off restaurants, but 5-8 locations within the first 18 months of entering a market.
Retail is also on Hart House’s agenda.
“We are making our own food for the restaurant and it’s providing the opportunity to think about how to broadly get that into more people’s mouths beyond just the restaurant growth,” Hooper said. He added that they would most likely enter the consumer packaged goods market with their chicken analogs.
“They’re the furthest along in our R&D and they get the most consistently positive feedback,” he said.
Besides, he added, no one is yet dominating the plant-based chicken market in the way that Impossible and Beyond are for beef, “certainly at least from an airwaves perspective.”
The Deluxe Hot N Crispy Chick’N sandwich is the brand’s best-selling item, but shakes are also performing well, particularly the Oreo and strawberry flavors.
Hooper said that Kevin Hart isn’t just the chain’s namesake: The whole concept was the celebrity’s idea.
“The idea for Hart House is Kevin’s. He is not a licensed asset or brand ambassador. He is the creator. The concept, the menu, the idea, and the position originated with Kevin as the founder,” Hooper said, adding that the celebrity also provided his own capital for the concept.
“Most celebrities don’t have their own skin in the game. They’re on some sort of licensed agreement with the brand. Kevin is invested monetarily and emotionally in it.”
Of course it also helps that he’s a “megaphone” with more than 300 million followers on each of his social media platforms.
“He’s an integral part of the marketing strategy for the business,” Hooper said. “I’m happy to say he’s really easy to work with; he knows what he knows … and doesn’t pretend to know something he doesn’t, asks a lot of really smart questions and is engaged when he should be, and disengages when he should.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
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