However, vegetarians are NOT alone! Those who want healthier,
organic, GMO-free, or even just safer foods have few choices. Others
who'd enjoy getting out of the modern American "burger, pizza, taco,
sandwich, chicken" rut have few options, as well. People of certain
religious faiths--orthodox Jews, Muslims, Adventists, Hindus, etc.--also
have to exercise caution when eating out. Finally, the largest market
consists of those who desperately want to find tasty food that doesn't
make them fat, and that includes the 60+% of Americans who are already
All these folks would find what they're looking for in a chain
of vegan quick-serve restaurants. "Vegan" means the menu consists
entirely of items made without meat (including fish or chicken),
dairy, or eggs.
This idea will work if the food is good. Correction--It
will only work if the food is great! Menu items need
to be simple but tasty. Fortunately, those recipes already exist
and are being enjoyed in homes and small-scale restaurants throughout
the country. In this venture, regional commissary kitchens will
do most of the preparation, and the stores (that's industry-speak
for individual restaurants) will do more mixing, warming and serving
The food, by its nature, is typically low-fat and very healthy,
but it can also be delicious and "fun." It may include look-alikes
(meatless burgers, etc.), a range of ethnic selections (Southwest/Mexican,
Indian, Italian, Asian and others), and some ultra-healthy raw items.
The "quick-serve" format (costumers order, pay, take a marker,
sit down, and food is brought to their tables) will work best. I
also envision a drive-through window for picking up take-out orders
or for ordering from an abbreviated menu of quickly available items.
The Company Structure
OK, this might get a little radical at this point (as if it wasn't
already, right?), so please be patient.
This type of food is simply more expensive than the factory-farm-grown,
mass-produced fare found in typical chains. However, the venture
will be more successful if prices can be kept fairly close to those
of the competition. So how do we pull off such a trick?
1--Find investors for whom earning huge profits is NOT the primary
motivation. The company might pay out dividends only up to a
certain point, and excess profits could be used for increased expansion
or to further reduce costs. This will require finding investors
who are willing to accept maximum returns closer to what they might
get from conservative investments but who are also willing to tolerate
all the downside risk of putting money into a start-up business.
Cause-focused, altruistic, wealthy people don't grow on trees, but
they're out there. Do you know some?
2--Find executives who are NOT greedy. There should be a
reasonable expectation of a good income for talented execs and management,
but (taking a cue from Ralph Nader) the company will bring aboard
people who are willing to work for salaries that don't climb beyond
multiples of those of the entry-level employees. I have a scale
in mind. It's still flexible, of course, but the CEO will NOT
be earning a thousand times more than the kids wiping tables. The
concept will work BEST if this is not a typical American
3--Pay the entry-level staff MORE than the industry standard.
Now I hear you asking, "Catano, are you on drugs?" However, a better-than-standard
basic wage will allow hiring the best employees. For example, vegetarian
or "green" oriented high school and college students (and there
are many, their numbers are growing, and they're typically quite
sharp) will want jobs because they'll be able to earn a decent wage
and be part of something they can believe in. As a result, motivation
will be high and productivity far above average. I have several
other ideas for incentives, but those can wait. This is, after all,
just a summary.
4--Give away LOTS of money. "Alright," you're moaning, "Now
we think you're delusional!" But if this venture can begin to donate
a generous percentage of profits to organizations that promote the
principles on which it's based (meatless living, sustainable agriculture,
and environmental improvement), it will generate a network of synergistic
forces that will lift it to much higher levels than if it were merely
someone's goose that lays golden eggs. Tom Chappell, the CEO of
Tom's of Maine who wrote "The Soul of a Business," has already proven
over the long haul that the concept of "managing for profit AND
the common good" is profitable--for EVERYONE!
Being a marketing guy, I know just a little about this topic,
and good marketing is THE most important key to success.
Great ideas that aren't taken to the world and made to look
inviting go nowhere. On the contrary, mediocre ideas can be very
successful if properly marketed. This concept is a great idea that
will be wildly successful with great marketing.
The most important factor is to develop the cross-over market.
Vegetarians and other "green" people will come as soon as they know
about us. We won't need to advertise very much to them. The trick
is to get people who usually visit Wendy, the Colonel, or Ronald
McDonald to give us a try. I've roughed out several ads that will
make the "come-check-us-out" message both funny and compelling.
There will be lots to emphasize in advertising. For example, we'll
probably be able to boast having the cleanest restaurants on the
Others will try to imitate part or all of our formula, and that
competition will be welcomed. Imitation will confirm the validity
of our concept and make us the standard for comparison. However,
by being first to appear with great food and a workable formula,
this venture has the potential of dominating its niche for a long
I've laid out some fairly revolutionary ideas. Am I flexible?
Sure. Can this be done successfully if its structured as a standard
American venture? Probably. But if the ideas above are taken as
an organic whole, it has the best chance of building the momentum
of a sweeping social trend.
Will this be just another food fad? I don't think so. Studies show
that the vast majority of people who adopt a healthier, planet-friendly
lifestyle demonstrate a lasting commitment over the long term. They'll
form a loyal customer base and our unpaid sales force. Furthermore,
this venture may prove to be the best way to entice a large slice
of America to stop committing "suicide by fork."
Can we avoid the pitfalls encountered by a few small ventures based
on similar concepts that have been tried? Yes, but I'd need too
much space to fully answer that. Briefly, however, the plan is to
remain true to the founding principles and humorously educate the
clientele rather than compromising in a misguided effort to gain
marketshare by trying to imitate competitors. Also, by locating
the stores only in prime locations, expanding only as adequately
funded, and successfully targeting and attracting the huge cross-over
market, many of the problems of other "veg-trepeneurs" can be overcome.
A business that works along these lines WILL happen. It
will most likely start as a regional effort in a major metropolitan
area and then grow nationwide. It may even go international. It's
simply an idea that's time has come. And because of several converging
social trends--from lifestyle simplification to concern about the
worldwide spread of diseases like Mad Cow--it will happen sooner
rather than later.
I also believe if the venture incorporates most of what I've outlined
above, it will succeed best. That's, of course, IF you accept a
slightly non-standard definition of "success."
Of course, I'd love to participate directly in such a venture (probably
as marketing director), but even if I don't--because people steal
others' ideas all the time--I'd still be glad. There'll be somewhere
I can always eat out, and America will be a better place for it.
Please feel free to copy and share this in its entirety.
In the honor system, that's your end of the deal. And please
let me know what you think. I'd be very interested.