On January 24, the first PLNT Burger in New York City—and the chain’s first standalone location—debuted in Union Square. We spoke with former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn about the Greek and Jewish comfort foods that built his early palate, how surfing inspired his plant-based shift, and why he champions fast food.
One of the foremost food policy chefs in America today, Mendelsohn grew up in a family of philanthropic restaurant owners. But it wasn’t until he moved from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Washington D.C. to launch his own restaurant that he started to understand the political power of food. Surrounded by politicians and staffers advocating for change in their respective sectors, Mendelsohn felt inspired to apply a similarly activist attitude to what he cared most about: food systems. In 2008, he opened his Capitol Hill restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, which quickly became a favorite hub for politicians and changemakers, including Former President Barack Obama and Former First Lady Michelle Obama.
For Mendelsohn, the restaurant’s political location became a springboard for joining the urgent national conversations surrounding farming, food access, and sustainability. Good Stuff sourced from local farms, planted trees in Brazil’s Caraíva River Basin with The Nature Conservancy, and donated labor and funds to José Andrés’ crisis relief organization DC Central Kitchen.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that a lightbulb went off for the former Top Chef. His life was upended when he attended the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, hosted by food equity advocate Michel Nischan in Pescadero, California. Instead of quaffing wine and networking, Mendelsohn and 14 other chefs rolled up their sleeves and brainstormed creative solutions to food issues, from sustainability to food insecurity. He soon found willing mentors in not only Nischan, but also Andrés and Tom Colicchio.
“Chefs are taking on a new role in the world—one that goes beyond your restaurant’s four walls,” Mendelsohn says. “The food policy boot camp makes chefs realize the voice that they have.”
In 2015, Mendelsohn took on the role of chair of the D.C. Food Policy Council, which unites community leaders and government staff to further the sustainability, health, and access of D.C.’s food systems. In 2019, he and Seth Goldman of Honest Tea opened their first plant-based concept, PLNT Burger, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Mendelsohn’s fast-food vegan burgers were instantaneously craveable, even during a pandemic. Whole Foods rapidly licensed Mendelsohn to open eight other PLNT Burger locations across the mid-Atlantic region in just two years, where the instantly identifiable classics like double cheeseburgers, spicy fried chik’n sandwiches, sweet potato fries and soft serve won rave reviews. We chatted with Mendelsohn about how he created the perfect formula for a vegan fast-food restaurant that could trigger a plant-based revolution.
LIVEKINDLY: You come from a restaurant family. Your mom is Greek and your dad is Jewish. Did you grow up with home-cooked family meals from both those traditions?
Mendelsohn: My mother is a rockstar chef—she’s a big restaurateur and comes from Greek restaurateurs, and she’s been in food her whole life. My dad was the oddball from an accounting background, and I always joke that I grew up in a Grewish family. We celebrated food of all sorts, whether it was Hanukkah, Passover, or Christmas foods, so I got the best of both worlds. My mom cooks a home-cooked meal every single day, from Greek pastitsio and moussaka and keftedes, to the Jewish foods she learned to make because of my dad, like matzo ball soup and latkes. Her latkes are the best in the world. I think that’s why comfort is the thing that I love the most. I love the tasting dinner, but really, my best meals are family meals.
LIVEKINDLY: How did those childhood experiences construct your worldview of food?
Mendelsohn: Growing up like that really made me a worldly person—not only did I grow up in that environment, but our family, we were globetrotters. We weren’t wealthy, but we lived in Spain for a few years, and it influenced my global thought process on cuisine and even religion, because there are multiple different ways to look at both of those, and that’s okay. People can have faith in what they have faith in, and my faith is surfing.
LIVEKINDLY: PLNT serves a fishless sandwich called the Save the Bay Fillet, made with Good Catch Foods crispy fish-free filet and house-made tartar sauce. Were the oceans and surfing a major influence in opening a vegan restaurant for you?
Mendelsohn: Yes, that definitely had an impact. The plastic waste in the oceans is a huge environmental issue, and through that world, I’ve definitely been inspired to do a lot of what I do. I also just love the oceans and have been a water guy for a long time, and have fallen in love with surfing. Surfing is kind of spiritual in a way—it’s very rhythmic, because if you think about it, most of your time surfing is spent waiting in the water for a wave. It inspires me when I go surfing, to think about everything I’m doing on planet earth. I come up with a lot of good ideas out there.
LIVEKINDLY: Plastic waste is devastating, but so is the methane created by food waste. How do you manage food waste at PLNT Burger?
Mendelsohn: Fast food has a reputation of being wasteful, but we have very little waste at our restaurant—it’s pretty incredible. We keep menus small, cook to order, and do portion controls, so we’re very cognizant. We have waste logs that we use, and our Director of Operations Mike Colletti makes sure we order properly and train our staff. Food waste is such a buzzword, and it’s true that we as a society waste a lot of food, but it’s really distribution in America that we have to figure out, because that’s how we waste a lot of food. A lot of food is being wasted before it even gets to plates.
LIVEKINDLY: Your staple menu item is the PLNT Burger, a single Beyond Meat patty with tomato, lettuce, pickles, caramelized onion, and PLNT sauce on a potato bun. Did you set out to make the vegan version of the Big Mac?
Mendelsohn: I never set out to open up a burger place that was just for vegans and vegetarians, actually. We set out to do an indulgent, greasy, delicious burger spot that just happens to be plant-based—that opens us up for a lot more consumers, who want to make some changes but don’t know how to. Burgers are a category everyone loves, and one of the highest-selling food groups in the world, so if people can start to switch up their burger intake with plant-based once in a while, it’s an easy entry point for the vegan lifestyle and better for you and the planet.
LIVEKINDLY: Your burgers are delicious and well-dressed, but there’s nothing wrong with a super basic Beyond burger either. Are we at a turning point for the vegan burger, and also for plant-based eating?
Mendelsohn: We think so. We’re going to look back on this moment in time 100 years from now, and say, “That’s the moment when America started eating more plants as a whole.” We’re in this renaissance moment of plant-based food. People come to our PLNT Burger locations in Whole Foods and have the Beyond Burgers in their shopping baskets, and they ask us how to cook them before buying them—it happens all the time, because people are still getting used to them. There’s an element of advocacy and education with our brand. Plant-based food is now crossing over into mass appeal and getting normalized—and that’s where we want to live, because now we’re experiencing a massive change in our food system because of that shift, including in how we grow.
LIVEKINDLY: So now that we’re seeing this plant-based mainstreaming, will Top Chef will ever host a vegan or vegetarian season?
Mendelsohn: I just asked Tom Colicchio that question a couple weeks ago. He made me realize that they once had a vegan challenge and Natalie Portman was the guest judge, and it went really well. He didn’t say that they’re ready to have a whole vegan Top Chef battle, but I think the moment is now.
LIVEKINDLY: You’ve mentioned expanding PLNT Burger across the New York Tri-State region. What else is next for PLNT Burger?
Mendelsohn: Well, we’re bringing a new menu item that we’ll be releasing, made from a very unique leftover: the fruiting body of the oyster mushroom. On a farm visit, someone told me that they sometimes take home the fruiting body remainders that are left over after oyster mushrooms get harvested, and that they taste just like chicken when they’re sauteed. This fruiting body is delicious and super nutrient dense, and we’re able to make it into a texturized chicken without processing anything. The only issue is supply, and now that we’re in New York City, we have to have something consistent, so we’re doing our chicken sandwich with Gardein. Now we’re going to use the fruiting body in a great innovation for another menu item we’ll be releasing.