How an Entrepreneur Plans to Create ‘McDonald’s’ Plant-Based Food

  • Entrepreneur Steele Smiley aims to build America’s first plant-based burger chain, Stalk & Spade.
  • With his other quick and casual restaurant, Crisp & Green, Smiley taps into a healthy food market dominated by millennials and millennials.
  • He spoke to Insider about how the pandemic has changed people’s minds towards wellness.

Steele Smiley will be the first to tell you that he leads his life as if he were in the military.

This involves 20 workouts a week, three times a day: running in the morning, a yoga or boxing class during the day, and lifting weights at night.

Since that doesn’t seem to satisfy all of his energy, Smiley also juggles two quick and casual Minnesota restaurants. In 2016, he opened Stalk & Spade, which serves salads, cereal bowls, smoothies, and free workout classes. Five years later (in the midst of the pandemic), he launched Crisp & Green with a plant-only menu. He developed both brands in the South and Midwest, pitting conventional health centers like LA and NYC for an edge in less competitive markets.

“We intend to become the nation’s first franchisable plant-based burger chain,” Smiley told Insider, touting it as the plant-based version of McDonald’s.

It’s a bold statement, but the 43-year-old serial entrepreneur has 20 years in the fitness industry under his belt. While it declined to share revenue figures, analyzes verified by Insider showed that Crisp & Green’s digital orders grew from 9% of its total orders in January 2020 to over 70% in April when the pandemic struck, where they have remained since.

rod and shovel

Stalk & Spade was launched in May.

Rod & Shovel


In 2021 alone, Crisp & Green has grown from five states to 12, with multiple locations in the Sun Belt, an area experiencing explosive growth before and during the pandemic. Smiley said the chain is approaching 100 stores in 14 states, with new stores opening every 6.8 days.

Overall, however, the restaurant scene has struggled. Last August, before the widespread vaccination, rapid occasional space was down 12%, according to figures from the Technomic catering data platform. While consumer spending in restaurants has increased this year compared to last year, the recovery has not yet returned to pre-pandemic traffic levels. Restaurants are still struggling with issues like labor shortages and shorter hours.

Still, the wellness economy is worth $ 1.5 trillion, according to McKinsey, and Smiley is betting it can tap into it, especially since the pandemic has prompted many people to adopt healthier lifestyles. Plant-based diets, followed by nearly 10 million Americans, are gaining ground. The market is growing and is expected to exceed $ 74 billion by 2021.

“The next evolution in healthy eating is plant-based eating,” Smiley said. “A decade from now, people will choose the plant-based alternatives to the traditional meat they eat today.”

Move around, Sweetgreen

Smiley only had $ 765 in his bank account when he launched his career in 2004 with his studio-boutique STEELE Fitness. In 2013, he had just landed a major partnership with Under Armor when he sold his business to international wellness company Lift Brands Global. He joined the parent company as a senior executive.

He started Crisp & Green in November 2016, which he juggled while working for Lift Brands for five months before moving on to full time. “I worked during the day at my first big company, and at night I put on a Crisp & Green t-shirt and worked in my restaurant,” Smiley said.

Smiley said he always wanted to start multiple businesses across multiple industries. Moving her career from fitness to healthy eating was just the next natural step.

“The opportunity that I felt was staring me in the face was the food,” he said. “In fitness, I’ve taught people that what time you train can only have a huge impact. The other 23 hours in a day, you can help people understand how to make the right food choices. ”

crispy and green

Crisp & Green offers free fitness classes in addition to its menu of salads and smoothies.

Crunchy and green


Those who perhaps understood this pre-pandemic best were young, healthy women, whom Steele often saw walking through the doors of Crisp & Green.

Its brands certainly have Gen Z and Millennials written all over it. Both generations have helped grow the global healthy food and nutrition economy to $ 704 billion and pave the way for plant-based diets. Millennials, dubbed “the wellness generation,” are particularly health conscious and more willing to spend on healthy eating and fitness than their parents.

For them, investing in green juices and $ 30 spin courses is a low-key status symbol, a way to show that they care about their health and have the money to do it right.

Smiley made sure Crisp & Green ticked all the boxes for this demographic: healthy, digitally accessible, deliverable, and Instagrammable. “It made people say I wanted to live a more ambitious life,” he said.

A publication shared by C&G • Healthy & Scratch-Made! (@crispandgreen)

It was this combination that Smiley says allowed the restaurant to gain momentum during the pandemic, which in turn led to his confidence to start another business.

“I thought to myself why stop with just one that worked? ” he said. And that’s how Stalk & Spade was born.

The green way of the future

After his pandemic success, Smiley said he saw an opportunity to prepare for a post-vaccine economic reopening by giving Americans what he thought they needed after a health problem.

recession
and a social recession: healthier food and an opportunity to get out of the house.

But he acknowledged that the introduction of another concept into the increasingly saturated wellness industry – particularly during a pandemic that has seen a shrinking footprint in the fast casual industry – meant it would face a difficult road. He knew he had to look to the future – and what he saw were plants.

A post shared by STALK & SPADE (@stalkandspade)

He said he and his team worked on creating Stalk & Spade’s plant-based menu from scratch until taste testers couldn’t discern the difference between a real burger and a hamburger at home. herbal.

The pandemic has pushed healthy eating 10 years from now, he said. This has dramatically widened its demographics, from most young adults to almost everyone.

When asked who his customers are now, Smiley laughed, “humans.” After all, “everyone wants to live a better life.”

Nutrition has taken on new importance, according to a McKinsey survey, as people now want foods that will help them achieve their wellness goals while tasting great. Millennials and Gen Z are even more willing to invest in health and wellness after the pandemic, with 60% of them believing that taking care of their health will be the most important societal change in the pandemic.

rod and shovel

With a modern and minimalist design, even the interior of Stalk & Spade is instagrammable.

Rod & Shovel


The mental shift has sparked the rise of a high performance lifestyle, in which people increasingly let wearable devices and apps track their health and make lifestyle choices for them. This includes Smiley himself, who monitors his sleep with wearable devices. The healthier life people are turning to now is the life Smiley has been living all this time, which could prove to be the key to growing her brands.

By the end of the year, he said, Crisp & Green will have 25 locations with 60 more in the works. Stalk & Spade is slated to open its second location in Minnesota in early 2022.

Smiley believes the time has come for plant-based nutrition to move from a niche audience to a more mainstream one. “We have fueled the trends in healthy eating,” he said of the plant market. “This is the opportunity for a whole new genre to start.”

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