Jeff Sinelli, the founder of Dallas-based Sinelli Concepts International, has partnered with Earth Burger founder Mike Behrend to franchise the plant-based burger brand.
Earth Burger was one of the pioneers of the now-growing niche of plant-based fast food. The concept first launched in 2014 in San Antonio, Texas, and has grown to four units there, with another company location planned for Dallas. Now Sinelli believes the brand is ready for expansion across the U.S., and perhaps even globally.
Sinelli Concepts has become an equal partner in the franchisor Earth Burger Global, which is planning a launch party in November to kick off the franchising program.
Earth Burger has spent the past year preparing for franchising, including expanding daypart offerings by adding an espresso-based coffee program, Sinelli said.
Known for Beyond Meat burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches—all with no animal products—Earth Burger has also had a runaway hit with its Warp Wrap, a Just Egg and plant-based sausage breakfast sandwich with tater tots that’s available all day but begged for a coffee add on, Sinelli said.
“We have the opportunity to be the first plant-based coffee shop program offering only plant-based milks,” he said. “Where Starbucks is struggling to upcharge and has people picketing, that’s all we do.”
Earth Burger also has the advantage of offering drive-thru service, though Sinelli said the concept will be developed with multiple formats, targeting food courts, strip centers, malls and nontraditional locations. “It’s a brand that can go anywhere,” he said.
Earth Burger joins a growing number of plant-based QSR brands vying for national dominance, and many are also franchising. But the expansion move also comes at a time when some observers see consumer interest in plant-based eating starting to wane.
That dampened enthusiasm, however, could also be blamed on the typically higher price of plant-based proteins. Sinelli said the branded products that have paved the way for plant-based fast food are “investment grade” and have higher costs.
“But I think the costs will go down,” he said. Operators that move into the space early may pay more for ingredients, but “it’s the job of the brand to grow and scale and reduce the costs.”
Those in the industry know there will have to be price parity between meat and non-meat alternatives for the trend to have staying power—and arguably plant-based products should be less expensive, because harvesting plants is less costly than harvesting animals, he said.
“We’re going long term,” said Sinelli. “When you play long term, there’s going to be incumbents and ups and downs in any segment. This space is so active. At the NRA show there were dozens and dozens of new participants. Some will fade, some will merge, some will partner. But it’s going to go forward.”
Earth Burger is also looking at shifting to proprietary products where possible on the menu. Sinelli Concepts, for example, has a frozen dessert brand called Paciugo Gelato Café, with about 30 units and a manufacturing plant, which offers a potential opportunity to create a proprietary plant-based milkshake base.
And for guests who prefer burgers with a shorter ingredient list, Earth Burger offers a roasted quinoa burger with lentils, and a protein bowl with kale, carrots, pickled cabbage, garbanzo beans, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, ancient grains and hummus.
Prices are below $10 for the single sandwiches and combo meals are under $13.
Sinelli has developed a portfolio of brands ranging from Genghis Grill to Which Wich sandwiches. A former vegan himself, Sinelli was an early adopter of plant-based proteins, adding a Beyond Chicken option to the menu at Which Wich in 2015.
Behrend, who was once known for his chicken-fried steak and three-pound cinnamon rolls at Lulu’s Bakery & Café, switched to a plant-based diet in 2005 and lost more than 70 pounds. He sold the bakery and opened Green Vegetarian Cuisine, described as San Antonio’s first vegetarian restaurant, and then created Earth Burger, launching it initially with a kickstarter campaign that raised $40,000.
Sinelli said he has been watching the Earth Burger brand ever since.
Now describing himself as a “pure flexitarian,” Sinelli said there is clear interest in plant-based concepts, with celebrities like Kevin Hart, Leonardo DiCaprio (Neat Burger) and Travis Barker (Crossroads Kitchen) investing in the space.
Still yet to come is the long-awaited “cultured meat” wave, with meat developed from cells rather than animals, Sinelli added.
“In 10 years, it’s going to be about protein. What your protein looks like, whether from plants or animals, it’s not going to matter,” he said.
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