Next Level Burger takes sustainability to the next level

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Next Level Burger Menus Plant based burgers, fries and shakes / Photo courtesy of Next Level Burger

As the arena of plant-based burger concepts fills up, Next Level Burger hopes to differentiate itself from the competition with a focus on sustainability, organic ingredients, and aggressive growth.

And in the space for plant-based burger chains, the brand may have a slight edge. After all, they were the first, according to Matthew de Gruyter, the chain’s co-founder and CEO.

De Gruyter and his wife Cierra opened Next Level in 2014 with the intention of sharing what they did as a family with the world.

“In 2013, there were only a few multi-unit plant-based chains and no restaurants that committed to organic and non-GMO, let alone living wages,” he said. “And we decided to put them all together in one package and see if we can make that work. And fortunately we were not only able to get it to work, but also to make it a class leader.”

What’s on offer

Next Level offers a selection of burgers, fries and shakes reminiscent of the comfort classics. Its plant-based burgers have analogues ranging from beef to fish, and diners can top their fries with options like plant-based chili and cheese.

“What we were looking for when we started Next Level Burger was an all-American reinvention of the burger shop for the 21st century. So we have a full spectrum of offerings, from that craving greasy-feeling burger — without the fat — to the other end of the spectrum of 100% whole-food, organic veggie burgers and everything in between,” de Gruyter said.

Oregon-based Fast Casual had 9 locations as of 2022, and de Gruyter said the company plans to quadruple the number of its units by the end of 2025. According to market researcher Technomic, the chain made $7.2 million in sales in 2021, up 18%. from the previous year.

“The caveat to this and our macro approach to growth is that we’ve been focused on growing as aggressively as possible,” he said. “I see no reason why America’s first plant-based burger shop can’t span a thousand locations or more, whether that takes 10 years or 30 years.”

A focus on sustainability

Sustainability is another important aspect of the brand. In addition to its plant-based ingredients, the chain has committed to using 100% compostable to-go merchandise.

“We are in a position where literally every year we prevent hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water from being wasted. And on top of that, we prevent millions of pounds of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere every year,” he said. “So when it comes to eco-friendliness and sustainability, these aren’t green washes or even the best of well-intentioned initiatives – at Next Level, it’s like our DNA.”

De Gruyter said that sustainable eating has gained popularity due to current environmental issues.

“I think people are waking up,” he said. “They realize they don’t want to feel like they’re being hit by a truck every day because they’re choosing to eat or drink. They recognize the fact that if we are to continue to thrive on this planet, we must treat it and ourselves better. And they realize that what they do and the decisions they make matter right here and now.”

Plant-based products have continued to explode on menus, and even some of the most meat-centric chains are now offering plant-based options. Burger King offers a plant-based version of its classic Whopper, and last year the chain tested meatless nuggets. McDonald’s, on the other hand, ended testing of its much-anticipated McPlant burger earlier this summer, with analysts suggesting its sales fell short of expectations.

De Gruyter said the quality of the ingredients and value proposition help Next Level Burger differentiate itself in the limited-service space.

“If someone wants to get a more sustainable option out of Burger King, more power to them,” he said. “If they want the whole package: great food, great service, feeling good, their impact on their own health, their impact on the environment, supporting a company that actually pays a living wage, then they can come to the Next Level. We just think there’s no comparison between the two.”

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