Next Level Burger
- Next Level Burger, which makes plant-based burgers, was cofounded in 2014 by Matt de Gruyter.
- The chain, based in Oregon and backed by Whole Foods, announced a $20 million funding round Tuesday.
- Next Level Burger plans to triple in size and steal share from McDonald’s, de Gruyter said.
Editors note: This story was originally published in September 2022.
By 30, Matthew de Gruyter, an oil-and-gas venture capitalist, had made his first $1 million. The father of two could indulge in the finer things in life, living in the wealthy suburbs of Orange County, California, and driving a red BMW M3 race car.
He said he could also afford to live a “cleaner” life. He’d given up red meat in 2010, after his mother died of cancer at 56. De Gruyter, then 27, reflected on his weekly diet of steaks, Whoppers, and meat burritos; he estimates he ate several pounds of red meat a week. De Gruyter said the switch to a plant-based diet made him stronger, more energetic, and less stressed at work.
But as he examined his work and personal ethos, de Gruyter realized he was a walking contradiction: He was eating a plant-based diet to help cut carbon emissions while profiting from the billion-dollar oil-and-gas sector.
“It does not get more antithetical than going from oil and gas and drilling wells in the earth and polluting the planet to the sustainability that is inherent in pushing anything plant-based,” de Gruyter told Insider.
In his quest to align his career with this diet, he quit his job and launched a restaurant serving plant-based burgers in 2014. The quinoa-and-mushroom-based burgers were created from recipes by his wife, Cierra. Eventually, the brand caught the eye of two key investors: Whole Foods Market and Alex Payne, who was an early Twitter employee. Both became early backers of de Gruyter’s brand, Next Level Burger, which has grown to nine restaurants in six states.
The restaurant chain announced a $20 million raise on Tuesday, led by Payne and his wife, Nicole Brodeur. Next Level plans to use the funds to reach 28 locations by 2025.
De Gruyter’s goals in the fast-growing sector are lofty: take share away from McDonald’s by becoming a brand that people flock to because its burgers are not only good for the environment but delicious and affordable.
“We want to make the question not ‘Why would you eat plant-based?’ to ‘Why wouldn’t you?'” he said.
Next Level Burger patties are made of quinoa and mushrooms. The chain also has a burger made with Beyond Meat.
Next Level Burger
Whole Foods took the chain to the next level
De Gruyter quit his VC job in 2013 and moved his family to Bend, Oregon, to launch Next Level Burger.
The startup, bootstrapped from the money he’d made investing in the oil-and-gas sector, opened in the summer of 2014. Central Oregon proved to be the perfect place to test the prototype.
“It is a Shangri-La of skiing and snowboarding, mountain biking and kayaking, hiking and climbing,” de Gruyter said.
Serendipity played a significant role in its expansion. De Gruyter said that two months after opening, Payne and Brodeur walked into Next Level Burger.
De Gruyter said Payne and Brodeur, who invests in early-stage vegan and sustainable-change companies, made a “seven-figure” investment in Next Level. The backing allowed de Gruyter to open a second restaurant in Portland in October 2015, where he said the “lines were out the door for days” after its opening.
The Portland success put Next Level on the radar of Whole Foods Market. In July 2016, the two companies partnered to put the plant-based-burger joint inside a Whole Foods 365 store in Lake Oswego, an affluent Portland suburb. Eventually, Whole Foods became Next Level’s “biggest investor” with a minority stake, said de Gruyter, who remains the majority stakeholder.
The investment was crucial to Next Level’s growth. Six of Next Level’s nine restaurants are in Whole Foods stores in Oregon, Texas, New York, California, and Washington.
“Without trailblazers such as Whole Foods and others, the world wouldn’t have been ready for NLB in 2014,” de Gruyter said.
Next Level plans to go after McDonald’s
De Gruyter, who turns 40 on Tuesday, estimated that 80% of Next Level’s customers “are flexitarian and are not vegan or vegetarian.”
“And we love to feed vegans and vegetarians,” he added, “but at the end of the day, you don’t get too far preaching to the choir.”
These diners have options. Next Level is not the only vegan or plant-based restaurant chain in the US; other chains include Veggie Grill, Plant Power Fast Food, and PLNT Burger, which have about 50 locations in total. The comedian Kevin Hart recently launched a vegan fast-food restaurant, Hart House, in Los Angeles.
De Gruyter said he views other plant-based chains not as threats but as allies. “Anyone pushing climate change in the right direction, anyone pushing sustainability in the right direction I see as on our side of the field,” he said.
However, fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Panda Express, and KFC that have added plant-based burgers and chicken to their menus are a different story.
“I’m much more interested in taking market share away from the McDonald’s and the Red Robins of the world,” he said.