If the introduction of plant-based chicken to restaurant menus made 2020 the unofficial year of the vegan chicken, then entrepreneur Lucas Bradbury is chief chicken enlightener. The founder of Project Pollo, a new quick-serve concept out of Texas that serves a proprietary alternative-chicken product called Chikn, Bradbury is on a mission to upend the chicken industry by offering quality, convenient, affordable plant-based “pollo with purpose.”
As the vegan concept — launched mid-pandemic — approaches the opening of its 12th location in a year, Bradbury shared the inside scoop on the Chikn development process, keeping menu prices down, and why otherwise carnivorous customers are flocking to the emerging brand. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How would you describe the taste and texture of Chikn?
It’s important for us to use a product that resembles the feel and texture of what our guests are used to in regard to real chicken. We want it to be crispy on the outside with a tender juicy patty that tears and shreds the same. This isn’t a fried piece of tofu. This is the future of chicken.
What was the development process for Chikn?
Photo: Lucas Bradbury founded Project Pollo, a new quick-service concept out of Texas that serves a proprietary alternative chicken product called Chikn.
I created the original recipe. It wasn’t practical for me to continue to make it, but many manufacturers said no. We didn’t have the volume, or they had other proteins on site, which meant a risk of cross-contamination. We reached out to a broker, and they connected us with a manufacturer out of Taiwan that co-packs and manufactures private label. We sent my recipe. They said, “Let us send you our formula.” I wasn’t too optimistic. Going into it I thought there’d be several different revisions. But they’ve been making plant-based alternatives for decades, and they gave me something proprietary that makes it unique for our brand. It’s a very clean product, stuff you could make in your kitchen: soy, oil, spices. Nothing in it you can’t pronounce. Not something made in the lab.
How did you incorporate the Chikn into the broader menu?
In the broader menu, the chicken sandwich is the staple. In and of itself the menu is unique and bold compared to other QSRs. The things we’re doing are more fast casual, but fast food is our model. Our best-seller is The Deluxe (classic Chikn with Birdy Sauce, pickle, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and smoked gouda cheese, for $8.50). My favorite is the Chikn Caesar Wrap (crispy breaded Chikn, chopped Romain and kale, Violife parmesan, croutons, red onion, topped with Caesar dressing, for $7.50). I get it with grilled Chikn, and it’s under 300 calories. When I want junk food, I get the Buffalo Mac & Cheese (pasta shells in Credo cashew queso, topped with six crispy buffalo Chikn nuggets and fresh jalapenos, for $8), or fries with cashew queso ($3.50).
What new menu items are you working on?
Photo: Buffalo Mac & Cheese with Credo cashew queso
A Jalapeno Popper Chikn Sandwich stuffed with cheese, bacon, cashew-based cream cheese and jalapeno. We’re not going to have a lack of creativity as we progress as a company.
Project Pollo sandwiches are priced around $7–$8. How do you keep the cost low?
Per pound, our Chikn product is a little higher than traditional chicken breast — in the middle of traditional meat and plant-based meats. We are contracted to purchase 2 million patties, or 500,000 per quarter. We’re able to offer a competitive price because there’s no middleman and no distributor costs, and our markup is small. The standard food model is $9–$10 to make. Other operators are not getting any savings; that’s why they charge $14–$15 for a chicken sandwich. The goal is to be able to have that scale, potentially to be able to drop that price at some point.
Do you foresee expanding into other plant-based proteins, say, alternatives to seafood or pork?
There’s a huge push on seafood alternatives. We don’t see ourselves branching into seafood. We’re Project Pollo — our main focus is Chikn, having affordable access to it. We want to keep it simple.
Most of your customers are not vegan or even vegetarian. What draws them to Project Pollo?
Photo: The Deluxe (classic Chikn with Birdy Sauce, pickle, plant-based bacon, lettuce, tomato, and smoked gouda cheese, for $8.50)
More than 70 percent of our customers don’t identify themselves as vegan or vegetarian. A lot of it is curiosity, and a huge push for healthier alternatives or no cholesterol. One out of 12 Americans are trying to completely eliminate dairy. Those all translate into someone eating better, incorporating plant-based into their regular diet. Also, our average starting rate is $15 per hour. We pay 100 percent of all employee benefits. People know that. People really want to support that.
What challenges do you foresee for your fast-growing brand?
We have seven locations; eight, nine, and 10 are opening in July; 11 and 12 in August; and September is our one-year anniversary. Our goal is not to get out of Texas until 2023. Educating guests is the challenge going into new markets. What’s the difference between, say, minced meat and fillers at a major quick-service chain? Our product is all non-GMO.
What regional brands do think are doing plant-based well?
Plant Power Fast Food, PLNT Burger, Next Level Burger. Competition is not a bad thing. The more people who have access, the better it can be for all