- Entrepreneur Steel Smiley aims to build America’s first vegan burger chain, Stalk & Spade.
- Along with his other fast food restaurant, Crisp & Green, Smiley is tapping into a healthy eating market dominated by millennials and Generation Z.
- Talk to Insider about how the pandemic has shifted people’s mindset toward wellness.
- See more stories on the Insider Business page.
Steele Smiley will be the first to tell you that he’s running his life like he’s in the military.
That includes 20 workouts a week, three times a day: running in the morning, a yoga or boxing class during the day, and weight lifting at night.
Since this doesn’t seem to satisfy all his energy, Smiley also juggles two fast food restaurants in Minnesota. In 2016, he opened Stalk & Spade, which offers salads, cereal bowls, smoothies, and free exercise classes. Five years later (in the midst of an epidemic) Crisp & Green launched with a vegan-only menu. He’s expanded the two brands into the South and Midwest, breaking with traditional health centers like Los Angeles and New York in favor of an edge in less competitive markets.
“We intend to become the first franchise vegan burger chain in the country,” Smiley told Insider, describing it as the vegan version of McDonald’s.
It’s a bold statement, but the 43-year-old serial entrepreneur has 20 years in the fitness industry under his belt. While he declined to share revenue numbers, Insider-verified analyzes showed Crisp & Green digital orders increased from 9% of total orders in January 2020 to more than 70% in April when the pandemic hit, and they’ve been there ever since.
In 2021 alone, Crisp & Green expanded from five states to 12, with several locations in the Sun Belt, an area experiencing explosive growth before and during the pandemic. Smiley said the chain is approaching 100 stores in 14 states, with new locations opening every 6.8 days.
In general, however, the restaurant scene was suffering. Last August, prior to widespread vaccination, the rapid incidental space fell 12%, according to figures from food service data platform Technomic. While consumer spending at restaurants is up this year compared to last year, the recovery has yet to bounce back to pre-pandemic traffic levels. Restaurants still face issues such as labor shortages and shorter working hours.
Still, the healthy economy is worth $1.5 trillion, according to McKinsey, and Smiley is betting that it can capitalize on that, especially since the pandemic has prompted so many people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Plant-based diets, which nearly 10 million Americans follow, are gaining momentum. The market is growing, and is expected to exceed $74 billion by 2021.
“The next evolution to healthy eating is plant-based eating,” Smiley said. “In a decade’s time, people will be choosing the vegetarian alternatives to the traditional meat they eat today.”
Move on, Sweetgreen
Smiley only had $765 in his bank account when he started his career in 2004 with his studio, STEELE Fitness. In 2013, he had just secured a big partnership with Under Armor when he sold his company to global health company Lift Brands Global. Join the parent company as a senior executive.
He launched Crisp & Green in November 2016, working for Lift Brands for five months before working full time. “During the day I was working my first big job, and at night I was wearing a Crisp & Green shirt and working in my restaurant,” Smiley said.
Smiley said he had always wanted to launch multiple businesses in multiple industries. Developing his career from fitness to healthy eating was just a natural next step.
“The chance that I felt like she was staring at me was food,” he said. “In fitness, I’ve taught people that the hour you exercise can only have a big impact. The other 23 hours a day, you can help people understand how to make the right food choices.”
Those who probably understood this pre-pandemic best were the young, healthy women, whom Steele often saw walking through the doors of Crisp & Green.
His trademarks sure have Generation Z and Millennials written all over it. The two generations helped grow the global economy of healthy eating and nutrition to $704 billion and are leading the way in plant-based eating. Millennials, nicknamed the “wellness generation,” are particularly more health conscious and more willing to spend on healthy food and fitness than their parents.
For them, investing in green smoothies and spinning classes for $30 is a secret status symbol, a way to express their concern for their health and get the money to do it right.
Smiley made sure Crisp & Green checked all the boxes for this demographic: healthy, digitally accessible, deliverable, and Instagrammable. “It made people say I wanted to live a more ambitious life,” he said.
It is this combination that Smiley believes has enabled the restaurant to gain traction during the pandemic, which in turn has led to his confidence in launching another venture.
“You understand why you stop with only one was working?” He said. And so Stalk & Spade was born.
The plant-based method of the future
After his pandemic success, Smiley said he saw an opportunity to prepare for a post-vaccine economic reopening by giving Americans what he believed they would need after a health recession. And Social stagnation: healthy food and a chance to get out of the house.
But he realized that introducing another concept into the increasingly saturated wellness sector — especially during a pandemic that has seen its rapid footprint drop — means it will face a difficult path. He knew he needed to look to the future – and what he saw were plants.
He said he and his team worked to build a vegan menu at Stalk & Spade from scratch so that taste-testers couldn’t tell the difference between real burgers and a plant-based one.
The pandemic has pushed healthy eating 10 years into the future, he said. It has greatly expanded his demographic from mostly young to almost everyone.
When Smiley was asked about his clients now, he said with a laugh: “Human.” After all, “everyone wants to live a better life.”
Nutrition has taken on new importance, according to a survey by McKinsey, with people now wanting food that helps them achieve their wellness goals while also tasting good. Millennials and Generation Z are more willing to invest in post-pandemic health and wellness, with 60% believing that taking care of individual health will be the most important societal change for the pandemic.
The mindset shift has led to the emergence of a high-performance lifestyle, as people increasingly allow wearables and apps to track their health and make lifestyle choices. This includes Smiley himself, who monitors his sleep with wearable devices. The healthier life people are turning to now is the life that Smiley has been living all this time, which may be the key to growing his brands.
By the end of the year, he said, Crisp & Green will have 25 sites with another 60 sites in the pipeline. Stalk & Spade is set to open its second location in Minnesota in early 2022.
Smiley believes that now is the time to move plant-based eating from a niche audience to a more mainstream one. “We’ve been fueled by healthy eating trends,” he said of the plant-based market. “It’s an opportunity to start a whole new genre.”