American fast food, the cornerstone of SAD (or the Standard American Diet) is in desperate need of a makeover. Now, a united front is coming to make a veggie burger-sized dent in the fast-food space.
That’s because this month, Oregon-based Next Level Burger (NLB) announced its acquisition of Veggie Grill, facilitated by investment fund VegInvest. Renamed Veggie Grill by Next Level, together, they comprise one of the largest vegan fast-food businesses in the world.
Next Level Burger
“Acquiring Veggie Grill aligns with our OG goal, which is maximizing impact,” Matthew de Gruyter, NLB co-founder, tells VegNews.
“Legacy and global impact have been our goal from the beginning,” he says. “The more plant-based grub we sling, the more our impact amplifies.”
Veggie Grill’s legacy lives on
Though their histories are distinct, NLB and Veggie Grill have always shared a common mission: to give consumers a healthier, more sustainable, choice when it comes to fast food.
Founded in 2006 in Orange County, CA, Veggie Grill set out on a mission to transform fast-food culture with a completely plant-based menu. Despite initial challenges, the brand resonated with a growing consumer base, eventually expanding to more than 30 locations.
Matthew de Gruyter/Next Level Burger
NLB, founded in 2013 by Matthew and Cierra de Gruyter in Bend, OR, rapidly grew from a single location to a multi-state presence. Motivated by a commitment to sustainability and healthy eating, the de Gruyters led NLB to redefine the classic American fast-food experience with organic and plant-based versions of hearty burgers, chicken sandwiches, hand-spun shakes, and more.
In 2015, NLB opened another standalone outpost in Portland, OR before expanding to several outposts inside of Whole Foods Markets. In 2022, the vegan chain expanded again, this time outside of the grocery chain to additional standalone locations.
In the last couple of years, both chains adapted their menus and approaches throughout the pandemic. However, Veggie Grill—like many restaurants—was struggling, with VegInvest stepping in last year to save the chain from bankruptcy.
Before the acquisition, Veggie Grill closed several restaurants in major cities such as New York City and Chicago, reducing its location count to 17. This period also saw a menu refocus, introducing items like Beyond Steak and the innovative Yo! Egg, a vegan egg with a runny yolk.
In his new role as CEO of Veggie Grill by Next Level, de Gruyter plans to revive a version of Veggie Grill that speaks to its essence but with some upgrades, emphasizing a shift to top-shelf sourcing with non-GMO ingredients and all-organic produce.
The menu at Veggie Grill by Next Level
The specifics of what will be on the Veggie Grill menu are currently a work in progress. De Gruyter and his team have been doing extensive research with Veggie Grill fans to find out what they want to see on the menu.
“Cierra and I have been fans of Veggie Grill from back in the day, and we want to make sure we’re listening to our OG Veggie Grill guests,” de Gruyter says.
The team recently posted one of Veggie Grill’s early menus on social media to gain insights into which items customers want to see return. Here, longtime fans voiced excitement about the potential return of “OG” items such as the All Hail Kale salad, the Bali Bliss tempeh-packed sandwich, and the beloved soup and salad combo.
Fans also reminisced about a time when Veggie Grill offered onion rings—an item that is typically not vegan at traditional fast-food chains.
“We’re asking folks far and wide on social media and in person what they would love to see change with this new era of Veggie Grill by Next Level,” he says. “We do plan to bring back some fan favorites, but of course, made with organic and non-GMO ingredients.”
At the end of the day, de Gruyter wants to craft a business that goes back to the basics in some ways, with a menu he is proud to serve to his children.
“We want to go old school, as in, our great grandparents eating organic before it was cool,” de Gruyter says. “For us, it comes down to why wouldn’t we serve organic and non-GMO food? There’s an added cost, but we’re talking about our collective human health and the health of the planet.”
Expanding Veggie Grill to the next level
Both NLB and Veggie Grill are known for their vibrant team cultures, celebrating diversity, merit, and leadership. This acquisition promises to extend these values, ensuring living wages and best-in-class benefits for all team members.
Next Level Burger
“We’re seeing this as an opportunity to take Veggie Grill’s culture to the next level,” de Gruyter says. “We want all of our team members to be proud of the work they are doing and the mission they are standing behind.”
The Veggie Grill acquisition also comes after NLB secured a $20 million funding round in 2022, which it has been using to expand its location count. De Gruyter is holding steadfast to his plan to open 1,000 vegan fast-food outposts nationwide—but now with Veggie Grill by Next Level along for the ride.
“We’re not asking ourselves, ‘How do we not lose?’ We’re asking ourselves, ‘How do we win?’” de Gruyter says.
“Veggie Grill by Next Level and its expansion is front and center alongside Next Level Burger as we grow our national presence,” he says. “We’re just getting started.”