Meet the entrepreneur planning to build the 'McDonald's' of plant-based burgers
- Entrepreneur Steele Smiley aims to build America's first plant-based burger chain, Stalk & Spade.
- Along with his other fast-casual restaurant, Crisp & Green, Smiley is tapping into a healthy eating market dominated by millennials and Gen Z.
- He spoke with Insider about how the pandemic has shifted people's mindset toward wellness.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
Steele Smiley will be the first to tell you he runs his life like he's in the military.
That 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 his energy, Smiley also juggles two Minnesota-based fast-casual restaurants. In 2016, he opened Stalk & Spade, which serves up salads, grain bowls, smoothies, and free workout classes. Five years later (in the midst of the pandemic) he launched Crisp & Green with a plant-based-only menu. He's expanded both brands in the south and Midwest, bucking conventional health hubs like LA and NYC in favor of an edge in less competitive markets.
"We intend to become the first franchisable plant-based burger chain in the country," Smiley told Insider, billing 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 he declined to share revenue numbers, analytics verified by Insider showed that Crisp & Green digital orders increased from 9% of its total orders in January 2020 to more than 70% in April when the pandemic hit, where they've stayed ever since.
In 2021 alone, Crisp & Green expanded from five states to 12, with several locations in the Sun Belt, an area seeing explosive growth before and during the pandemic. Smiley said the chain is nearing 100 stores in 14 states, with new locations opening every 6.8 days.
Overall, however, the restaurant scene has been struggling. Last August, before widespread vaccination, the fast casual space was down 12%, according to figures from foodservice data platform Technomic. While consumer spending in restaurants rose this year compared to last, recovery hasn't yet snapped back to pre-pandemic traffic levels. Restaurants are still contending with issues like labor shortages and shorter hours.
Still, the wellness economy is worth $1.5 trillion, according to McKinsey, and Smiley is betting he can tap into that, especially since the pandemic has prompted many people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Plant-based diets, which nearly 10 million Americans follow, are gaining traction. The market is growing, expected to exceed $74 billion by 2021.
"The next evolution of healthy eating is plant-based eating," Smiley said. "Within a decade, people will choose the plant-based alternatives of the traditional meat they eat today."
Move over, Sweetgreen
Smiley had just $765 in his bank account when he kicked off his career in 2004 with his boutique studio STEELE Fitness. In 2013, he had just landed a major partnership with Under Armour when he sold his business to international wellness company Lift Brands Global. He joined the parent company as a senior executive.
He launched Crisp & Green in November 2016, which he juggled while working for Lift Brands for five months before going full-time. "I would work during the day at my first big business, and at night I would put on a Crisp & Green t-shirt and work at my restaurant," Smiley said.
Smiley said he'd always wanted to launch multiple businesses in multiple industries. Evolving his career from fitness to healthy eating was only a natural next step.
"The opportunity that I felt was staring me in the face was food," he said. "In fitness, I taught people that the hour you work out can only be so impactful. The other 23 hours of a day, you can help people understand how to make the right food choices."
Those who perhaps best understood this pre-pandemic were young, healthy women, whom Steele would often see walking through Crisp & Green's doors.
His brands certainly have Gen Z and millennial written all over them. The two generations helped grow the global healthy eating and nutrition economy to $704 billion and are leading the way in plant-based eating. Millennials, dubbed "the wellness generation," are especially more health-conscious and more willing to spend on healthy food and fitness than their parents.
For them, investing in green juices and $30 spin classes is a discreet status symbol, a way to convey they care about their health and have the money to do it properly.
Smiley made sure Crisp & Green checked all the boxes for this demographic: healthy, digitally accessible, deliverable, and Instagrammable. "It made people say I want to live a more aspirational life," he said.
It's this combination that Smiley believes enabled the restaurant to gain steam during the pandemic, which in turn led to his confidence in launching another venture.
"I figured why stop with just one that was working?" he said. And so Stalk & Spade was born.
The plant-based 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'd need after a health-related recession and a social recession: healthier food and an opportunity to get out of the house.
But he recognised that bringing yet another concept into the increasingly saturated wellness sector - especially during a pandemic that saw a declining footprint in the fast casual industry - meant that he'd be facing a tough road. He knew he needed to look toward the future - and what he saw were plants.
He said he and his team worked on building Stalk & Spade's plant-based menu from scratch until taste testers couldn't discern the difference between a real burger and a plant-based one.
The pandemic pushed healthy eating 10 years into the future, he said. It dramatically expanded his demographic from mostly young adults to nearly everyone.
When asked who his clientele is now, Smiley said with a laugh, "humans." After all, "everyone wants to live a better life."
Nutrition has taken on new importance, per a McKinsey survey, as people now want food that will help them accomplish wellness goals while tasting good. Millennials and Gen Z are even more willing to invest in health and wellness post-pandemic, with 60% believing that taking care of one's health will be the pandemic's most important societal change.
The mental shift has sparked the rise of a high-performance lifestyle, in which people are increasingly letting wearables and apps track their health and make lifestyle choices for them. That includes Smiley himself, who monitors his sleep with wearables. The healthier life people are now turning to is the life Smiley has been living this whole time, which could prove to be the key to growing his brands.
By the end of the year, he said, Crisp & Green will have 25 locations with another 60 in the pipeline. Stalk & Spade is set to open up its second Minnesota location in early 2022.
Smiley believes the time is now for plant-based eating to go from a niche audience to a more mainstream one. "We fed into the trends of healthy eating," he said of the plant-based market. "It's an opportunity for an entire new genre to start."