Vegan chicken chain Project Pollo is on a mission to put Chick-fil-A out of business, and former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbook is helping it get one step closer to that goal.
Easterbrook’s recent investment in Project Pollo marks the close of the chain’s latest funding round. The former McDonald’s CEO, who left the fast-food giant in 2019, is also joining the vegan fast-food chain as a direct advisor to Project Pollo founder and CEO Lucas Bradbury.
“We aim to be the leader in plant-based restaurants, specifically [in] quick-service restaurants,” Bradbury says in a statement. “[Easterbrook] adds world-class value, and as a direct advisor to the CEO, I know he will help me develop into the leader I am capable of becoming.”
Easterbrook, who was appointed CEO of McDonald’s in 2015, is credited with revitalizing the global chain after years of plummeting sales during the tenure of his predecessor, Don Thompson. As CEO, Easterbrook introduced the self-service kiosks now found in McDonald’s locations across the country.
Before stepping into his CEO position, Easterbrook served as the head of McDonald’s UK, eventually becoming McDonald’s global Chief Brand Officer. During his stint with the fast-food chain’s UK division, Easterbrook oversaw the addition of healthier menu items, ushered in a modern redesign of the chain’s locations, and revamped employee training.
Beyond his work with McDonald’s, Easterbrook has experience with restaurant expansion. In 2011, Easterbrook momentarily left McDonald’s for a position with UK-based chain PizzaExpress, where he oversaw an expansion from 400 locations to about 600. This skill and experience will come in handy at Project Pollo, as the chain is looking to expand operations to 100 stores by 2025.
“It’s important that we work alongside talented investors and institutions who have been where we are heading,” Bradbury says. “Part of our success is shortening the learning curve and learning from a variety of talent that shares our mission, offering affordable access to plant-based foods for everyone.”
Project Pollo’s rapid expansion
Founded just two years ago amid the global pandemic, Project Pollo currently operates 15 locations within the state of Texas. The vegan fast-food chain’s rapid expansion can be credited to Bradbury’s quick thinking and commitment to the plant-based lifestyle.
After taking notice of the countless fast-food chains increasingly closing locations permanently due to COVID-19, Bradbury began securing long-term leases at a discounted cost. The vegan entrepreneur knew he wanted to bring plant-based fast-food options to the masses, and he quickly got to work opening locations across Texas.
Despite walking away from Shark Tank earlier this year without an investment deal, Bradbury has continued making strides in taking Project Pollo national, opening five new locations since pitching the Sharks. Locations in Phoenix, AZ; Las Vegas, NV; Denver, CO; and Nashville and Memphis, TN are already in the works. Additionally, franchisee-owned locations could be coming to the Northeast, where the company is speaking with interested parties.
The future of fast-food is vegan
The rise of Project Pollo is evidence of veganism’s fast-food takeover. Increasingly, traditional fast-food chains—such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Carl’s Jr.—are adding vegan-friendly items to their restaurant menus.
Outside of traditional fast-food, entirely vegan fast-food restaurants are also on the rise.
“I see a future in plant-based consumption,” Easterbrook says in a statement. “By taking the opportunity to partner with emerging leaders like Project Pollo, we are able to learn from global experiences and relate that to real time solutions for the brand.”
Project Pollo is the latest plant-based investment for Easterbrook. This summer, Easterbrook invested in Clean Kitchen Club, a vegan, UK-based quick-service restaurant founded by YouTube star Mikey Pearce and reality television star Verity Bowditch.
And Easterbrook isn’t the only fast-food veteran betting on the industry’s plant-based takeover.
Chef Mike Salem, the former head of culinary innovation at Burger King, helped further veganism within the mainstream when he put the Impossible Whopper on the chain’s menu. Now, Salem is working with Hart House—a new vegan, quick-service restaurant founded by actor and comedian Kevin Hart—to transform the fast-food industry as we know it.
Former Popeyes and Wendy’s chef Chris Johnson is yet another fast-food veteran leading the industry toward a plant-based future. Johnson, who specializes in product development, is now working with vegan chicken startup Nowadays. During his time with Wendy’s, Johnson was exposed to plant-based meats and credits this experience for helping him understand the potential of vegan meats for mainstream consumers.