“Every collaboration we’ve done is because one of us has that person’s phone number — they’re a friend,” said Lexie Jiaras, 28, a founder of Monty’s, of the high-profile people who helped create a subculture. around the plant-based burger chain. “Someone comes into the store who is a friend of ours, who is creative and who we think would be a good fit for us.”
The majority of the people who have contributed to the success of Monty’s, which sells plant-based burgers, chicken, fries, tater tots and shakes at six locations in Los Angeles, are not famous. It’s families, fans leaving Dodger games, tourists, vegans, and people who might eat an entire double cheeseburger and never know it’s not meat.
However, the approach to getting them in is borrowed from the tactics of the music industry rather than the conventional wisdom of the food industry. Three of the working founders – Nic Adler, Bill Fold and Ms. Jiaras – have connections to Goldenvoice, the concert and festival conglomerate that operates Coachella.
mr. Fold is the festival producer of Goldenvoice; Mr. Adler, the former culinary director (he also owns Sunset Boulevard’s Roxy Theater); and Ms. Jiaras is a creative consultant for Coachella who advises on marketing, merchandise, sponsorships and more.
The three friends have built a successful, self-funded vegan burger chain during a period when restaurants have almost accidentally been endangered. “Obviously Bill and I just missed In-N-Out Burger,” said Ms. Jiaras, who has been in a relationship with Mr. Fold for seven years (both are vegans). “The only burger options felt fancy—a white tablecloth seat where you’ll pay over $30 for this fluffy bun burger. We just wanted to grab a burger, eat fries, and dip into a shake.”
In 2018, the couple began developing a concept for a vegan In-N-Out in Mr. Fold, Riverside, California. They asked Mr. Adler, a friend and the owner of Nic’s on Beverly, to help develop recipes using Impossible Meat – a recently launched soy and potato protein substitute for ground beef. Ms. Jiaras’s friend drew a picture of her rescue schnoodle, Monty, eating a hamburger, and the image became the brand’s logo and namesake.
“We were playful, because we weren’t really focused on winning,” she said. The group planned to open Monty’s at a location in the Riverside Food Lab, and when construction was delayed, they plugged their new business into the circuit they knew best: festivals.
“We did Camp Flog Gnaw, Coachella, Stagecoach, all those fun places – so you could only get Monty’s in a really cool place all summer of 2018,” said Ms. Jiaras. The festivals turned out to be ideal for developing their menu. “You get real-time feedback from people,” said Mr. Adler. “You can tell by their faces.”
When the Riverside location and another branch in Koreatown opened in late 2018, insights from the music industry continued to drive the strategy. “We use the word ‘anti-marketing’ a lot — and I think you see that more in the music world than you don’t go the traditional way,” said Mr. Adler, 49. “We’re more of the street team that corners. dies and hands out a cool flyer.” (Monty’s estimates have handed out a million stickers.)
“We’ve treated Monty’s almost like you’d treat a young band you’d find in a selling out 300-man club,” he said. “We didn’t put a lot of thought into trying to make the culinary world love Monty’s. Our goal was to help musicians, skaters, fashionistas and dog lovers love Monty’s.”
When Ms. Jiaras described the opening of the Koreatown location, it sounded more like a thumping nightclub. “There was a huge line to get in, Nic was working the door, I was shaking, there were long days,” she said. “It felt like we were working on a show.”
The founders also appreciate a vegan community that, as Ms. Jiaras put it, is “going hard for a new restaurant,” and has only recently had compelling alternatives to much-loved mainstream cuisine, including options that aren’t billed as Puritan or even healthy. Adler, who has been a vegan for 25 years, has spent much of his career cultivating a community through Nic’s and the Eat Drink Vegan Festival. “I’ve helped bring influencers into the plant-based scene,” he said.
“Over time, Monty’s has moved from just being a place where vegans go to a place where everyone goes, and now probably more non-vegans than vegans,” said Mr. Adler. That crossover appeal has grown thanks to tasty innovations like Impossible and Beyond Meat.
Their concept comes at a time when consumers, especially Gen Z, are increasingly interested in plant-based foods. The Good Food Institute, a global nonprofit dedicated to accelerating alternative protein innovation, has reported that plant-based food sales grew nearly twice as much as animal-based foods in 2020, with plant-based meats named as the fastest-growing category. behind milk and dairy alternatives.
“Monty’s has really taken this concept and inspired people through branding and good food,” said Taylor McKinnon, one of the founders of Mr. Charlie’s, a recent addition to the plant-based fast food landscape in Los Angeles. “They gave people a reason to think about plant-based. If there weren’t Monty’s, I don’t know if Mr. Charlie’s would exist.’
Charlie’s joins a growing field of fast-casual vegan burger chains in Southern California, but so far only Monty’s has had a flood of public support from celebrities (that may change, as Kevin Hart and Leonardo DiCaprio recently made investments in plant-based burger chains) . Many high-profile fans, such as Finneas, Travis Barker, and Vince Staples, do custom shake collaborations, with $1 from each being donated to an animal charity. (Mr. Barker, a long-time friend of Mr. Fold’s, got a percentage of the company when it was founded.) Some stars also develop custom merchandise with Monty’s.
“Merchandise has always been important to me as an individual,” Ms Jiaras said. “It was important for people to take home something that would represent a good feeling they had at Monty’s and that would become a part of their lives.” In terms of volume, Monty’s sells more burgers and shakes than merchandise (about 1,200 burgers per day at all locations), but it earns more revenue from clothing, the company said.
The team pays close attention to fashion trends. “It seems like hearts and light baby colors have been really big in the past year, so we wanted to include them in everything,” Ms Jiaras said of a recent drop. “And when we saw the rise of vintage Harley Davidson t-shirts, we wanted to do something with lightning bolts.”
Monty’s does little in the way of traditional marketing, although it has put up 15 billboards in Los Angeles in the past year. But the founders — who are all Disneyland supporters and have modeled their customer experience after the theme park, including a birthday pin — say they struggle with the brand that outshines the food. They tried to post a pristine photo of the citizen on the billboard, but they felt it had been lost. They replaced it with a picture of Monty.
“Eventually, we came to see Monty’s as a platform,” said Ms. Jiaras, who has a large following on TikTok, where she regularly reviews fashion and weighs the zeitgeist. For a chain cherished on social media, visuals are paramount, and Ms. Jiaras and Mr. Adler are constantly analyzing how the brand is tagged.
Early on, Instagram was the way they knew they were on to something. “We had an idea that we would be somewhat successful when we saw suitcases come into Monty’s,” recalled Mr. Adler himself, from the place that became a bucket list stop in Los Angeles.
Shortly after that, there was the “Instagram photo dump,” he said, referring to the trend of posting a slideshow of everyday images, from manicured to mundane. “We started seeing pictures of the Santa Monica Pier, Disneyland — and Monty’s,” he said.