PLNT Burger just opened its fifth restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, proving that by offering people tasty and comforting plant-based foods, you can win. A sixth location of the fast-casual restaurant is slated to open in the coming weeks, with more in the works. PLNT is part of a trend that shows that across America, veganism is going strong, even during, or perhaps because of, uncertain times.

Since the start of the pandemic, a net of 99 new vegan restaurants have opened in the United States, according to data from Ken Spector, founder of Happy Cow, the vegan and vegetarian restaurant food-finder app. In fact, more vegan places opened than "regular" restaurants during the pandemic, and many more general eateries shuttered than vegan ones did. One that has been expanding at a steady pace is PLNT Burger.

PLNT Burger launches, the pandemic hits, and they push on, feeding essential workers

Launched in the Silver Spring, Maryland Whole Foods late last year as the brainchild of Top Chef Spike Mendelsohn and his partners, Seth Goldman and Julie Farkas, PLNT offers fast-casual vegan options, like the PLNT Cheeseburger, made with Beyond Meat, Follow Your Heart American cheese, tomato, lettuce, and pickles, PLNT sauce on a potato bun. Their desserts, like Oatasty Milk Shake with spun oat milk and toppings, are crowd-pleasers whether you're vegan or just barely eating plant-based every other Monday.

There are several inspirational moments that led to the launch of PLNT, including when Goldman brought a cooler full of Beyond meat to a panel and slid it over to Mendelsohn, whose wife is vegan and so when he started cooking with it, he knew he was onto something when she approved of his creations. The other took place on a farm, with a rooster.

"The PLNT Burger concept was inspired by my love of burgers, my vegan wife Cody, and a desire to celebrate the classic American comfort foods in a way that is better for people and the planet. Meeting Seth and trying the Beyond burger was the moment I realized that I had an opportunity to bring plant-based foods to a whole new audience," said Celebrity Chef Spike Mendelsohn. "We want to democratize these delicious alternatives to animal protein. Accessibility matters, that's why we are targeting not only plant-based eaters but anyone who is craving a delicious, juicy burger."

Added Goldman: "We started PLNT Burger because we were hungry.  As a family of vegans, we could never find a delicious, quick way to feed the family.  We’ve had so much fun seeing the brand spread and being enjoyed by all kinds of eaters.  It’s a great way to democratize plant-based diets, and we look forward to seeing PLNT Burger continue to spread its roots."

The Beet caught up with PLNT's marketing director, Jonah Goldman, 27, a stakeholder who as a 9-year-old visited an animal rescue farm and met a rooster named George. It was the beginning of a historic shift in how the rest of us think about plant-based burgers. Now Goldman, 27, will drive expansion plans and strategic planning for the restaurant in collaboration with the founding team Chef Spike Mendelsohn, Chef Mike Colletti, Ben Kaplan, and Julie Farkas.

The Beet: PLNT Burger is part of a larger shift in how we see food. What's your approach?

Jonah Goldman: "The more people discover the interconnection between human health and environmental sustainability, the more they are eager to integrate more plant-based options into their diet. We have positioned our business to fuel that. We are at the nexus of American classics and plant-based choices."

TB: You've made a remarkable transition to "To-Go" options. Was that the plan?

JG: "We made adaptations in the model, because of the pandemic, but that was a short-term adaptation. But on a longer-term timeline, PLNT is about the future. If you continue to consider the ecological food chain and the environment plant-based food fits into that paradigm. So we have been able to see record sales during the pandemic, which we don't take for granted, but this happened at a time when people are considering their sustainability practices."

TB: How did you, as a business, make changes or react to Black Lives Matter

JG: "Minorities are disproportionately impacted at the production, distribution, and consumption of our food systems. And this is the same system people are protesting. It's about democratizing foods and working with groups that promote social justice and environmental justice and bringing healthy foods to every demographic; these are values at the core of our business. We make a point of driving more change through our fundraising through Encompass, the NAACP, and Equal Justice. It's about the fact that we need to work for change every day, in a way that accomplishes systemic change, and these injustices are so deep-routed that we need to go above and beyond."

TB: What advice would you have for other founders, especially restaurants?

JG: "We want to streamline our business and make sure it's able to stay strong against systemic shock. A strong supply chain is vital, and don't disrespect any human or animal. It is all about bringing people joy and simultaneously celebrating people's lives.

"A recognition we need to move away from animal agriculture–that has the potential to be a huge human hazard. To reduce our dependency on the use of pharmaceuticals, etc. The more we know the more people will look for foods with no cholesterol, for instance."

REY LOPEZ

TB: Not to get too picky but a lot of PLNT's food is more indulgent than healthy

JG: "There is an option for every dietary choice... A kale caesar salad, which is super delicious. And a chipotle ranch salad with avocado and tortilla chips. And though our sandwiches seem to be more on the indulgent side of comfort food, they are high in protein, have no cholesterol, and contain fewer calories [than the equivalent elswhere].

"We use sunflower oil for the fries and Follow Your Heart Veganaise on the various burgers."

TB: So this all came about when Seth met Spike? That's quite a story!

JG: My dad [Seth Goldman] was at a conference with Spike, speaking about leadership in the food system and entrepreneurship, when my father slipped a cooler of Beyond meat under his seat, and asked him to take them home and try them out. And for Spike, this was a breakthrough moment, because he really appreciated the fact that his whole family could eat the same thing. Since Cody his wife is vegan, it brought her immense joy that he was embracing meatless products. And for Spike, he was acutely aware of the challenges of bringing plant-protein to the level that tasted like animal protein, but he did it and that was the beginning.

"A good burger is a good burger, no matter where it comes from. Our point isn't "have a delicious plant-based burger, but have a delicious burger!" We can pass that taste test."

TB: So most of your customers are motivated to save the planet?

JG: "A plant-based burger uses 90 percent fewer Greenhouse Gas emissions, and of course, 100 percent fewer animals die. It's much more efficient all around."

TB: You worked in Israel. What best practices did you learn?

JG: "I have been exposed to all sorts of international students there and I had the privilege of working for a high-tech company. The most important thing I brought back is an appreciation for balance in my life and in industrial change.

"Before, I thought change happens primarily from the outside rather than the inside. But when I worked at the industrial engineering company I realized change can happen from within. A company can provide industrial solutions with the same application and quality and use as the industry alternative and pre-existing products but have a much better impact on the planet.

"If we are able to keep our global economy functioning by simply transitioning away from the old and to the new, then people would not have to sacrifice the privileges of the global economy we enjoy. Obviously, there is a huge importance to transitioning locally to a resilient food system and methods of production, but we are living in a global economy... and that likely won't change... so we need to think of systemic changes, from the global end. PLNT Burger –or PLANET Burger –knows that we as humans love burgers. And we should not focus on changing what people love, but change what they are eating."

The Goldman Family Wants to Change the Way We Think About Food

Changing what people are eating runs in the family. Seth Goldman is one of the reasons for Beyond Meat's runaway success, as an early investor, a board member since 2013, and chairman until February 2020, when he turned more attention to PLNT Burger, just before the pandemic hit. He and his wife Julie  Farkas had founded Honest Tea back in 1998, as a healthy low-calorie drink option, which they eventually sold to CocaCola. He then invested in Beyond Meat, became its chairman, and helped the company grow to its current domination. While forging these successes, Goldman and Farkas launched the non-profit Eat the Change, which supports companies that encourage people to eat plant-based foods to limit their impact on climate change.

REY LOPEZLOPEZ