Actor and comedian Kevin Hart is not vegan but he believes the future of fast food is plant based. /Photograph courtesy of Hart House.
Actor and comedian Kevin Hart opened a new quick-service concept called Hart House in Los Angeles in August, designed for rapid growth as a plant-based burger joint for the people.
With a focused menu featuring plant-based “burg’rs,” “chick’n” sandwiches, salads, nuggets, fries, tots and shakes, Hart House joins a growing number of animal-product-free alternatives to fast food popping up in Southern California.
But this concept is a standout for a number of reasons.
First, Hart House is being led by CEO Andy Hooper, the former president of &Pizza who left that brand after a re-org earlier this year. Hooper said he was drawn to Hart House in part because of the opportunity to create what he calls a sustainable employment experience for American fast food.
“I have always been chasing the chance to truly, like structurally, change what it means to work in the quick-service restaurant industry,” Hooper said. “I have been trying for 15 years to figure out how do you crack the code on something that has 50 years of bad habits in terms of how it treats employees and treats the employment experience.”
At Hart House, for example, the base wage is $19 to $22—well above the $16 minimum wage in Los Angeles. In addition, all workers are offered various levels of benefits:
Workers have access to a “lifestyle spending account,” for example, which gives them discounts for things that benefit their health and wellness, and that could include everything from a Netflix subscription to new tires for their car.
On top of that, workers can set up a savings account with Sunny Day Fund, to which Hart House contributes a “turbo-charged” interest rate to encourage employees to save. If a worker puts in $200, for example. Hart House contributes another $20.
“The goal is to help them build the habit of saving, but also to give them emergency money,” said Hooper. “In my experience, it’s not just about what somebody’s paid. It’s about what their stressors are at work and whether they can be fully present and not worried about how am I going to pay for those new tires I need for my car or my daughter just broke her ankle.”
And on top of that, all workers are eligible to set up a 401K, into which the company contributes, even if employees do not, Hooper said. And most low-wage workers don’t.
In addition, after the first 60 days, all workers are eligible for healthcare coverage, regardless of the number of hours they work, he said.
And there are the celebrity perks. Hart visited during orientation and in the early weeks further supported the team by doling out $500 checks, Hooper said.
These investments are designed to attract workers that can meet Hart House’s higher standards, which Hooper said aim for a level of quality and service rarely seen in the quick-service world.
During a recent visit to the busy restaurant—which is located near Los Angeles International Airport, just a block or two from a popular In-N-Out unit frequented by tourists—Hart House staffers worked the dining room, cheerfully touching tables as if at a full-service concept and answering questions about the menu.
Hooper said all of the workers who showed up for orientation were still on the job after two busy opening weeks. “I bet a lot of restaurants wouldn’t be able to say that,” he said.
And Hart House will soon be hiring.
The company has two more restaurants under construction in the Los Angeles area, and six leases signed. Hooper said they have begun the process of looking for locations out of state.
The first Hart House is about 3,000 square feet, but the plan is to develop multiple formats to operate in food courts, in endcap locations or as a drive-thru, Hooper said. The company already has a food truck.
There are no immediate plans to franchise. In addition to actor Hart’s capital, investors include Michael Rubin, CEO of digital sports platform Fanatics and other friends and family of the management team.
Hart House also stands out in the plant-based niche by keeping menu prices accessible.
At Hart House sandwiches are priced in the $5 to $7 range ($10 to $12 for combo meals), which is close to what is typical in the market for meat-serving QSR brands like McDonald’s and Burger King.
In Los Angeles, plant-based burger concepts — including growing brands like Stand-Up Burgers, Monty’s Good Burger and Honeybee Burger — tend to be priced higher, in part because most have from-scratch menus built around higher-cost ingredients like Beyond Meat or Impossible Burgers.
Hart House is using proprietary plant-based analogs for its sandwiches, ingredients that meet the brand’s standards for both quality and accessibility, said Mike Salem, head of culinary innovation — who previously worked for Burger King and brought the Impossible Whopper to that brand’s menu.
Salem said they considered both Beyond and Impossible products, which have strong brand awareness. But Hart House already had the built-in brand power of association with the actor Hart, a Hollywood hit machine known for the Jumanji movies, “Central Intelligence,” “Ride Along” and the more recent “Me Time.”
“We felt like we had tremendous brand power, given our association with Kevin, and we were in a unique position to pick the right analogs that met our needs from a quality perspective,” Salem said.
The move will also allow for CPG positioning down the road, he noted.
The burg’r is made with a product that uses pea and soy protein with a coconut fat component. The crispy chick’n is pea protein with no soy. There’s some gluten in the breading, but the proteins are non-GMO and the menu has no artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats.
Hooper said Hart House is not trying to steal share from other vegetarian concepts, but rather to go after consumers who regularly eat fast food. He said an estimated 40% of Americans eat fast food once a week, he said.
“This is an option for them that is a little better for them, a lot better for the world around them and doesn’t require them to make some big step up in financial commitment,” he said.
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