The vegan revolution marches on — one step forward and two steps back, as Lenin would say.
Celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn is opening PLNT Burger in the heart of Union Square later this fall, Side Dish can reveal exclusively.
The Food Network star will also be showcasing his plant-based burger at this fall’s New York Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash, which he had won in past years for his beef burgers — a favorite of President Obama at Mendelsohn’s Capitol Hill hotspot in Washington, Good Stuff Eatery.
The Montreal-born chef, however, got his start in New York, working for top chefs and restaurateurs including Thomas Keller, the late Sirio Maccioni and Drew Nieporent.
“I’m very excited to be back in New York with a plant-based restaurant, full of advocacy, and doing what is good for the planet,” said Mendelsohn, who opened 10 PLNT locations in Pennsylvania and in the DC area over the past 18 months.
The Union Square spot will be 850 square feet, focusing on take-out — with four or five seats at the counter. The plan is to open more locations in the city, he added.
“Our goal is to democratize plant-based food and feed the masses,” Mendelsohn tells Side Dish.
He’s got some competition. Nicole Marquis, the Philly-based founder of popular HipCityVeg — known as the “Shake Shack” of plant-based food, is opening her first eatery in the city next month.
Like Mendelsohn, Marquis says her mission is to make plant-based eating more accessible to all. And like Mendelsohn, she is opening in Union Square — along with two delivery-only kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens. HipCityVeg is slated to open at 28 E. 12th St.
“We are seeing an unprecedented amount of innovation, interest and investment in plant-based foods right now. My concept is to serve food that is familiar, like the fast food most of us grew up on, so people will try it, crave it and return,” Marquis said. “Most of our guests are not vegetarian or vegan. We’re seeing more people interested in eating at least one plant-based meal a day, which can lead to more. And now, with the urgency around climate change, people realize that every meal is also an opportunity to have a lower impact on the planet.”
The “democratization” of the plant-based revolution comes shortly after Eleven Madison Park — named in past years as the world’s best restaurant — announced that it was going full vegan (save for milk and honey for tea) last May.
But its pricey $335 a person tasting menu (wine pairing is an extra $175 per person) just got panned by Eater, which says EMP’s food doesn’t come close to ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘risky.’ Nevertheless, EMP’s star chef Daniel Humm — now dating billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs — reportedly claims a 50,000 person waitlist.
Humm told Side Dish that his restaurant was embracing a plant-based approach to show diners how “delicious and magical” such food can be — a message that could empower others in the restaurant industry to embrace more vegetable options, he said.
“There is no denying that our food system is broken and I’ve been witnessing first-hand how supply has changed,” he said. “The future of dining is plant-based. It’s the way forward for our planet. This is not anti-meat, but pro-planet.”
Meanwhile, the vegan gospel is spreading: The Met Ball is going vegan this year. And around 25 new vegan spots have already opened in the Big Apple in this year alone, with three openings this week. This week, Chelsea-based Nuleaf — from the founders of Terri — is opening a second location in Hell’s Kitchen, while Plant Junkie is opening at 230 Park Avenue; Greenpot, a new vegan market in Greenpoint, Brooklyn also launched its soft opening this week.
Earlier this summer, Innocent Yesterday — serving creative takes on salads, pastas and baked goods, from donuts to carrot cake, and outstanding vegan pastries — opened at 252 B E. 77th St.
There are currently more than 180 vegan or plant-based eateries operating throughout the city, said Matt Marshall, a vegan-themed start-up entrepreneur and co-founder of @vegan.nyc, which tracks new vegan and plant based openings.
Some of them opened during the pandemic. They include plant-based Thyme & Tonic, a kosher mainly vegetarian/vegan gastropub at 474 Columbus Avenue, which is beside and owned by Modern Bread & Bagel. At Thyme & Tonic, the plant-based menu is gluten- and nut-free — though there are some eggs and sustainable fish on the menu.
In addition to the new openings, JaJaJa Plantas Mexicana is expanding to its fourth location in the city in a few weeks, a spokesperson said. And Lewis Hamilton’s UK-based plant-based burger brand, Neat, is also looking to open in New York, along with the West Coast’s Honeybee Burger, sources say.
Planta Queen, which has locations in Toronto, Miami, and West Palm Beach, also made a splash opening last May in NoMad, at 15 W. 27th St. It is slated to open a second spot in Soho — as well as in Bethesda, Maryland; Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. The chain, founded by Steven Salm and David Lee, specializes in plant-based Asian cuisine.
“The market is responding well,” said Salm, Planta Queen’s CEO. “We don’t compare to EMP, where it costs $2,000 for dinner for two. Our average check is $48. But we are premium in terms of the aesthetic, vibe and professionalism, with an approachable price point.” He adds that the clientele, which skews younger and female, are not plant-based exclusive.
“People don’t only come to us because we are vegan. It’s an amazing restaurant that happens to not serve animal products,” Salm said. “Our average target consumers are millennials, a generation that cares about the planet and their health. We aren’t trying to convince anyone of anything. The majority of people are seeking us out because they believe in our ethos and values and the benefits of what a plant based lifestyle means.”
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