Planta Cocina, TorontoWhether you call it vegan or plant-based, restaurants that offer vegan options—or a fully plant-based menu—can be very good business with roughly 40% of North Americans trying to include more vegan ingredients in their diets. It is why large chains like Carl’s Jr. and Burger King are now serving meatless burgers from outfits like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger.
David Lee, co-founder of the innovative hospitality group Planta Restaurants, opened his first plant-based restaurant in his native Toronto in 2016. The eatery’s massive success allowed him to expand quickly, adding three more restaurants in Toronto and additional outposts in Florida and New York, with more on the way. We spoke with Lee to learn about the challenges and unexpected opportunities he’s found by launching a plant-based restaurant venture.
How did Planta begin? Was the goal always to launch an entirely plant-based brand?
I was always intrigued by plant-based cuisine. I used to have a restaurant in Toronto, Canada, called Nota Bene and we served lots of plant-based dishes. Then a mutual friend of mine and my now-business partner, Steven Salm, introduced us. Steven had always wanted to open a plant-based restaurant, and I had too. Five years later, we now have eight Planta locations with two more to come in early 2022—and more after that.
Why did you want to create a plant-based restaurant group?
Sustainability is a big part of it. When you take a look at the food and where it comes from, it’s becoming more challenging. When you take a look at the earth, we’re doing a terrible job at preserving the earth. I think we’d be lying to say the world was meant to have the impact we have. The damage that we’re doing to our oceans. I love scuba diving. I’ve been scuba diving since I was 15 years old. Every year when I would go back home to Mauritius, where I was raised, I would see the oceans and see the changes. You have to see it to believe it.
How did you yourself get a handle on how to cook solely plant-based food?
Asian-French is what I was very much into and am still into. So when we were getting ready to launch Planta, I went fully plant-based for eight months to really understand what plant-based was. It was the only way I could do it. Now my eating is 90% plant-based. When I grew up it was definitely a mixed culture of cuisines. There was lots to tap into.
What is the biggest misunderstanding that people–whether that’s guests or operators—have about vegan food?
The way that some people think of plant-based cuisine as only processed food or that plant-based cooking doesn’t taste good—that’s just not true. When you really know or think about every culture and its cuisines, nearly all offer plant-based cooking. Whether it’s Indian, Asian, or any culture that you can pick really, there is a form of plant-based cuisine. For me, coming from a non-plant-based kitchen and mindset, I was more intrigued by that.
What was the biggest challenge early on?
Right at the beginning when Steven and I were developing Planta, one of my biggest concerns was Sunday brunch. I thought we should have eggs. We went back-and-forth. Steven some days would say “yes” and other days he would say “I don’t think we should.” After a lot of R&D and soul-searching, we decided to go 100% plant-based.
What is the biggest challenge now?
Staffing, of course. And the supply chain is broken—has broken. There are days and weeks when you can see it returning. Then there are other days that it just doesn’t happen.
The Christmas Bundle from Planta at Home
How did Planta, as a plant-based restaurant group, handle the COVID-19 pandemic when it first began?
Yup, we pivoted [Lee chuckles, knowingly.] We started nationwide shipping when the pandemic happened. It was an opportunity for the whole team to be—to get—creative. And from that creativity came a tremendous mind change and the birth of Planta’s nationwide shipping. During Thanksgiving, we did Thanksgiving feasts through our nationwide shipping and people all over the United States got to experience it.
More recipes come out of all this, too. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m at home right now and what do I want to cook?” A lot of R&D has risen from those early days of the pandemic.
Hear more from Chef Lee about what’s next here.
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Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He has worked in magazines, kitchens, newsletters, restaurants and a bunch of other environments he can’t remember right now. He has also been the editor in chief of both liquor.com and Tasting Table.