Andy Hooper’s mission is not to save the world one vegan burger at a time. The CEO and co-founder of Hart House, celebrity Kevin Hart’s plant-based quick-service concept that now has four units up and running in the Los Angeles area, thinks offering meatless food is simply in line with the way trends are going.
“Regardless of your personal appetite preferences and dietary restrictions, it's hard to ignore that the cost of animal-based proteins will continue to go up,” he said. Combine that with the realities of climate change and restaurant-goers’ increasing acceptance of entrées that don’t contain animal products, and it’s a logical approach if you’re trying to create a chain that will last for 50 years or more and spread across the world, he said.
“I think that's different than a lot of plant-based brands, which have approached their growth through the lens of continuing to share and sell the virtues of plant-based eating,” he said.
Given that just a few percent of Americans are vegan, that message doesn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of the population. What they want is food that’s affordable, convenient, and delicious.
“A lot of times vegan food is none of that,” he said.
Hart House developed its own plant-based chicken and beef analogs and created sandwich builds that are intended to enhance the distinctive flavors of those ingredients rather than to mask them.
“We want an objectively craveable and delicious burger and chicken sandwich to be the centerpiece of the menu,” he said.
Another distinguishing characteristic of the brand is its high-profile namesake, who Hooper said has been actively involved in developing the brand and certainly helps in marketing the concept. But both the CEO and the celebrity agree that neither Kevin Hart nor the fact that the restaurant is entirely vegan should be at the center of its marketing.
“If this is going to be thousands of units and really be the future of the quick-service industry that we think it can be, it needs to be bigger than him and bigger than just appealing to vegans,” he said.
The intention is to compete directly with the largest chains on affordability, convenience, and taste.
“It's important to us that folks don't anchor this as a plant-based California brand, because that's a very specific lane to be,” he said.
Hooper himself is a veteran of the restaurant industry, most recently as president of &pizza, but 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.
That HR background, and the employee-focused nature of &pizza, has resulted in his model for Hart House employees, which includes wages and benefits that he expects will reduce turnover and create a more positive work environment.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Learn more from Andy Hooper at CREATE: The Experience, where he will speak with NRN senior editor Bret Thorn about designing a brand that can take plant-based food mainstream, Oct. 1-3 in Palm Springs.