When they opened their first location in Bend, OR in 2014, Matthew and Cierra de Gruyter, founders of Next Level Burger (NLB), were convinced that the future of fast food would be vegan. With two children under the age of six, the couple decided the previous year that Matthew de Gruyter would quit his lucrative career to focus on developing the NLB instead.
This week, their vision was bolstered by a $20 million fundraising round from a group of investors, including start-up vegan couple Alex Payne, formerly of Twitter and Simple Bank, and Nicole Brodeur, who are now minority stakeholders.
Next Level Burger
The NLB concept is simple and spotlights organic and plant-based versions of American fast food favorites, with sustainability as a top priority along with fair wages and quality ingredients. Now, with $20 million in their pocket to fund their mission to create better fast food, the couple are ready to really take NLB to the next level.
“For the same reasons that I personally decided to go vegan, I thought the world was going to move more and more in this direction of being vegan and sustainable. What I couldn’t have predicted was the how quickly things have changed,” Matt de Gruyter told VegNews. “This increase helps validate our mission, our value set of plant-based ingredients, organic, non-GMO products, living wages, and our next step on the road to 1,000 NLB coast to coast.”
NLB is growing its vegan fast food empire
NLB’s menu is both familiar and indulgent, with simple burger builds (made with a choice of Beyond Burger or homemade vegan meat patties) to satisfy fast food cravings, and more complex offerings such as The Maverick: A stacked burger filled with onion rings, tempeh bacon, melty vegan cheese, pickles and sauces. Next Level Burger
Next level clucker
NLB also operates a vegan chicken concept, Next Level Clucker (NLC), inside its locations, offering a separate menu of plant-based chicken “CluckerWiches”, baskets of fries topped with vegan chicken tenderloins, salads, etc.
The menu is complemented by a variety of handmade milkshakes with a choice of soy or coconut soft in flavors such as Cookies N’ Cream, Thicc Mint Cookie and Blackberry. Next Level Burger
NLB got its start in Bend, OR and over the past eight years has expanded to other locations in Oregon, as well as Washington, California, Colorado, Texas and New York. with six outposts operating inside Whole Foods Market. This month, NLB opened its first standalone location in Denver, CO, representing a homecoming for the de Gruyters who met in the city while attending Metro State University.
With the new funding, NLB will expand to 28 locations by 2025 with the ultimate goal of opening 1,000 locations in the coming years. The 10th NLB outpost is slated for Seattle this fall.
Next Level Burger
While he plans to grow NLB responsibly with his employees and customers in mind, de Gruyter says this expansion cannot come quickly enough, given how desperately humanity must move away from its reliance on environmentally harmful animal agriculture.
“I believe we are at the most important point in human history,” says de Gruyter. “At no other time has the fate of humanity and the rest of the species that inhabit this planet rested on the decision and actions we take in this 21st century.”
“The stakes are too high and the science too strong to do less than we can to fight climate change and promote long-term sustainability,” says de Gruyter. “For us, growing NLB aggressively, yet wisely, is how we maximize that impact. At NLB, we believe the future is bright, but it’s up to all of us to ensure it.
Vegan fast food is booming
The vegan fast food category continues to grow with new entrants, including those backed by big names. Last month, comedian and actor Kevin Hart opened the first location of the vegan fast-food concept Hart House in Los Angeles with 10 ongoing leases for additional outposts. Hart hopes to one day make Hart House a national phenomenon à la McDonald’s but with a menu that serves the modern consumer.
Others in this space are expanding with similar goals to NLB, including Atlanta chain Slutty Vegan which raised $25 million earlier this year to fund its growth. Some of the funding here came from Danny Meyer, the famed restaurateur behind Shake Shack. With funding in hand, Slutty Vegan is now opening its first locations outside of Georgia in Alabama and New York.
For de Gruyter, while these brands may be competitors, he sees the proliferation of vegan fast-food concepts as a net positive for the collective mission to transform the food industry for the better.
“I see our plant-based competitors as wearing different shirts, but on the same side of the pitch working together to move the world in the right direction,” he says. “None of us can do this on our own, the speed with which we must act requires a collective shift towards more plant-based and more sustainable diets.”