In 2019, Burger King changed the trajectory of the American fast-food industry when the international chain introduced the Impossible Whopper to its menus across 7,000 locations in the US. Four years later, a number of mainstream fast-food and quick service restaurants have launched vegan-friendly burgers in an effort to cater to meat-free consumers.
But vegan options at mainstream restaurants aren’t the only plant-based innovations on the rise—entirely vegan fast-food concepts have also taken a foothold with consumers, regardless of their dietary habits.
Perhaps one of the most well-known vegan fast-food concepts today is Mr. Charlie’s. After launching in Los Angeles in February 2022, Mr. Charlie’s quickly rose to prominence, with fans on TikTok dubbing the restaurant the “vegan McDonald’s.”
Riding the wave of its new cult following, Mr. Charlie’s opened its second location in San Francisco less than a year later. And more recently, the micro-chain opened its newest location in Venice, CA this July.
Mr. Charlie’s affordable vegan burgers
Mr. Charlie’s prides itself on paying above minimum wage and helping employees build credit. But, the restaurant is also making significant strides in making veganism more accessible.
Shortly after Mr. Charlie’s rose to prominence on TikTok thanks to rave reviews from the likes of Lizzo and everyday consumers, the restaurant heard one critique time and time again: it’s too expensive.
With its “vegan McDonald’s” nickname, Mr. Charlie’s faced constant comparison to the real McDonald’s, which offers much lower prices but at the cost of lower employee wages and the cruelty of animal agriculture.
Since this initial wave of criticism, Mr. Charlie’s has organized promotions and giveaways to make its food more accessible.
Recently, the micro-chain rolled out Not a Hamburger Mondays. Every Monday, from 11:11am to 4:20pm, customers can purchase a Not a Hamburger (a classic burger made with Impossible Meat patties) for $0.99.
“It’s the cheapest vegan hamburger of all time and a way to help convert people to [plant-based food],” Taylor McKinnon, Mr. Charlie’s co-founder, tells VegNews. “The whole point is to encourage those who have never tried Mr. Charlie’s to come by, but it’s also a fun promo for those who already love it.”
“The Not a Hamburger is my favorite menu item, just super simple and it hits the spot,” McKinnon says.
Alongside Not a Hamburger Mondays, the micro-chain has also launched Not a Chicken Sandwich Wednesdays, where customers can buy one Not a Chicken Sandwich (made with Tindle’s vegan chicken) and get one free from 11:11am to 4:20pm.
Good vegan jobs
While Mr. Charlie’s is just one of several vegan fast-food restaurants ushering in a new era of fast-food, it’s leading the charge when it comes to its hiring practices.
In Los Angeles, Mr. Charlie’s partners with the Dream Center, a nationwide organization that helps unhoused and formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet by providing them with housing, training, and additional resources. More than a dozen of the restaurant’s Los Angeles employees are Dream Center participants.
And in San Francisco, Mr. Charlie’s follows a similar hiring model, working with GLIDE and Urban Alchemy—two organizations committed to helping the unhoused.
In Venice, CA, Mr. Charlie’s newest outpost saved 14 jobs. After a local vegan restaurant unexpectedly shuttered, its 14 employees were left without pay they were owed, and ultimately, without jobs. Mr. Charlie’s—which prides itself on its unique, mission-driven hiring practices—swooped in.
“I pulled an emergency meeting [with my co-founders] Charlie Kim and Aaron Haxton, and I just asked, ‘What does Mr. Charlie’s stand for?’ And they said, ‘We create opportunities for people,’” McKinnon says.
Together, the trio agreed to hire and train all 14 individuals, and today, all 14 are working at Mr. Charlie’s Venice, CA outpost.
With their eyes set on expansion, McKinnon, Kim, and Haxton will bring “the cheapest vegan hamburger of all time” and it’s two-for-one chicken sandwich to its fourth outpost just outside of Sydney, Australia.
Mr. Charlie’s expands to Australia
For its first international location, Mr. Charlie’s has eyed Redfern, Australia, a city approximately three miles south of Sydney. In the works since 2022, Mr. Charlie’s Redfern location will hold its soft launch on September 30.
McKinnon previously lived in Sydney for a number of years and was specifically drawn to Redfern after watching Rabbit-Proof Fence, a film based on a novel of the same name, several years ago.
The film depicts the real life plight of three girls who, after they’re torn away from their Aboriginal mother, are sent away to a government-run camp committed to integrating the young girls into white society.
Rabbit-Proof Fence left a lasting impression on McKinnon, and when the opportunity to bring Mr. Charlie’s to Australia presented itself, he knew he wanted to help empower and uplift the country’s Aboriginal communities.
Like so many indigenous populations across the world, Aboriginal communities have a history marked by painful government policies and genocides. As of June 2021, indigenous people make up only 3.8 percent of the total Australian population. Today, Redfern is considered an Aboriginal hub.
Mr. Charlie’s is already working with the Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES) to help provide jobs for local community members once Mr. Charlie’s opens its doors in Redfern.
“We will be at least 30 to 40 percent Aboriginal employed,” McKinnon says. “It has to be this way. We are here to create a new standard where everyone is equal, no matter where we come from or what we look like.”
Located right next to the AES, Mr. Charlie’s Australia outpost is meant to serve the community. “They’ve really been supportive and saying ‘We’re here to make sure that this serves our community as well,’” George Zeon, Mr. Charlie’s International Director, tells VegNews.
Beyond creating jobs, Mr. Charlie’s has also committed to providing infrastructure support to the Redfern Community Centre. “The city of Redfern is very rich in history,” Zeon says. “There are people who have been there for years.
“Everybody there really adds value, and for me, I just really wanted to go in with questions of ‘What do you need? How can we help?” he says. “It was nerve wracking for me, but I wanted to introduce [Mr. Charlie’s] and what we stand for.”