Matthew Guelke is CEO and Co-founder of The Plant Cafe Organic, a San Francisco Bay Area restaurant group. In 2023, The Nature Conservancy selected The Plant as the most sustainable restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area. In January 2023, The Plant was recognized among the top 30 global food & beverage brands by the Real Leader’s Sustainable Impact Award. Its goal is to bring 100% organic food and healthy alternatives to the mainstream.
Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:
- Matthew Guelke tells the fascinating story behind The Plant Cafe Organic
- Lacking prior experience, what has been the key to Matthew’s success in the restaurant business?
- Matthew talks about the early days after launching The Plant Cafe Organic
- How the pandemic changed the brand’s operations
- What has been Matthew’s focus since the pandemic?
- Why The Plant Cafe Organic is a good franchising opportunity
In this episode…
Imagine this — you own a group of eight restaurants popular with a niche audience based in the most expensive part of the US, and the pandemic happens. Your local government implements severe precautionary measures and six of your restaurants have to permanently close. How do you keep the brand alive and leverage its good name?
According to Matthew Guelke, CEO and Co-founder of The Plant Cafe Organic, the answer has been franchising. His San Francisco-based group of eight restaurants was rocked by the pandemic and reduced to two locations. Nevertheless, Matthew knew the brand — known for its honest approach to clean food and sustainability — still had great value. Rather than try to rebuild by opening new locations on their own, Matthew says he and his co-founder are offering the opportunity to franchisees.
On this episode of the Top Business Leaders Show, Matthew Guekle, CEO and Co-founder of The Plant Cafe Organic, join’s Rise25’s Chad Franzen for a conversation about building and sustaining a restaurant brand based on belief and passion. Matthew shares The Plant’s origin story, what the early days were like, the pandemic’s disastrous effect on the business and their strategy for rebuilding. He also explains why his brand is a good opportunity for franchisees and who would be best suited for the role.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- Matthew Guelke on LinkedIn
- The Plant Cafe Organic
- Real Leaders Impact Awards
- Chad Franzen on LinkedIn
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Welcome to the Top Business Leaders Show. Powered by Rise25 Media. We featured top founders, executives and business leaders from all over the world
Chad Franzen 0:20
Chad Franzen here co host for the show where we feature top restauranteurs, investors and business leaders. This is part of our spot on series spot on has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called spot on restaurant, where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They’ve saved everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more, go to spot on.com This episode is brought to you by Rise25. We help b2b businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partnerships through done for you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients, referral partners and thought leaders in your space, there is no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to rise25.com or email us at support at rise25.com. Matthew Guelke is CEO and Co-founder of The Plant Cafe Organic, a San Francisco Bay Area Restaurant Group known for being one of the most sustainable brands in the Bay Area. The Plant was voted the most sustainable restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area by the Nature Conservancy. And in January of 2023. This year, the plant was recognized as the in the top 30 Global Food and Beverage brands by the retail leader sustainable impact award. Hey, Matthew, it’s great to have you today. How are you?
Matthew Guelke 1:36
Good. Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Chad Franzen 1:38
Hey, tell me how The Plant Cafe Organic came about.
Matthew Guelke 1:44
That’s an interesting story. So pleasure to tell you. So I’m Canadian. And I was I moved to America, right around 2001, about a week before 9/11, just so I’ll never forget that. And I worked in tech for a while there. And at the time, one of my sisters, brother in law’s was a doctor got unfortunately, he got sick, he got cancer, and he eventually passed away. But it inspired my family to all go to a health retreat, this place called Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, which essentially what it does, it takes all the food that’s not healthy for you and replaces it only with the healthiest healing foods, hence the name Hippocrates. Let food be thy medicine. Anyway, I was there with my two older sisters and my parents. And we ate raw organic food for three weeks and eliminated everything else. Very, very healthy, healthy eating. And it really reset the bar on what I thought healthy food was or how healthy you could be, I guess. So it was quite healthy at the time anyway. But my parents saw huge health benefits, but and I also met several people that had had terminal cancers. And they were told they could not, you know, get your affairs in order is a kind of a statement used by doctors when there’s nothing more than they can do. And I met several people that that were had were told that and now they were living healthier lives than ever and their cancer gone away. So it inspired me, I went back to San Francisco after that. And I approached the chairman of the board of the software company I was looking for. And I said hey, I’ve got this concept for a restaurant and I’d never worked in a restaurant in my life. And here it is, here’s what it is. Everything’s got to be 100% organic, so you know what’s not in your food. So you know, it’s less toxins, and then make it flexitarian. So you can have vegans but also meat eaters share space, the meat is got to be sustainable and chemically devoid of all chemicals. And let’s let’s I want to do this. And so he said, I love the idea. He started eating the same way as me lost a lot of weight, got really healthy. And so we decided to do it together. So we opened our first restaurant in 2000 End of 2005. Really, it was a complete test. And you know, back then juicing wasn’t a big thing. But it we we made it a big part of our business. And I remember the restaurant tours around us were saying oh yeah, you’ll be okay. But I don’t know if you’re going to have dinner business and all this. We were we went from just word of mouth marketing, essentially grassroots. Pretty within a few months, we went from $3,000 a month in sales to eight 910 1000 And we’re packed. And so from there, we opened more restaurants as we went along. And that’s kind of how we got started but the concept and the mission was off bringing clean healthy food to the mainstream, and supporting ethical businesses so that those businesses can survive, and people can support them. And you know, it’s the sort of also supporting the environment. So our goals were health of people and health of the environment. So that’s sort of how we got started.
Chad Franzen 5:19
Yeah, well, that’s very interesting. So you said you had never had a restaurant experience before? You had it sounds like you’ve been pretty successful, what do you think has been kind of the key to
Matthew Guelke 5:29
your success? Um, I would say, transparency and kind of core mission. So if you give people what they want, and they need that, that sort of works, and, you know, again, there’s a lot of restaurants out there, you know, you’ve heard the terms, greenwashing or, you know, a lot of restaurants that I’d see on menu, you know, their menu would say things like organic wherever possible, which is sort of meaningless. The underlying meaning for that is, whatever is cheapest that we can have we can give to you, that’s organic, we’ll give you that. And the rest, we won’t really tell you. But the reality is, is that the most expensive stuff is the most important stuff to be organic. So for example, meat, you don’t want hormones, you don’t want antibiotics, you don’t want you know, and same with your with your vegetables, but also your dairy, you just don’t if cows are fed antibiotics and hormones that those go into your bodies as well. And there’s all kinds of studies that show when you provide organic food versus non organic food and you test test the system, you know, people’s bodies afterwards. It’s much less toxicity. So I think just the very clean and honest approach, just, you know, one people over,
Chad Franzen 6:51
so you call it The Plant Cafe, but it’s not 100% plant based. Right?
Matthew Guelke 6:57
Okay. Yeah. And that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s, you know, there’s, you know, sometimes that hurts us a little, I think, but we actually first we came out with the name Lettus, le TT us. And then a very big company called Lettuce Entertain, you came after us. And so even though we got the trademark, they wanted to sue us. And so instead of going that route, we just said, Okay, we’ll change our name, and no one had The Plant. But it’s sometimes people think we’re vegan or vegetarian only. But really what we are is worth let’s flexitarian.
Chad Franzen 7:29
Sure, sure. Where was your first location? And you talked a little bit about what the early days were like, they’re like, did you have to get the word out? How did you? What were the early days like there, and were there kind of challenges that came from opening your first restaurant.
Matthew Guelke 7:42
The the area is the Marina area where we have our first restaurant, which is a very trendy, fairly expensive area in San Francisco, the first area we looked at was Palo Alto. And the landlords of some of the spaces we’re looking at said, Well, who are you? What, where’s your background? We’re not, we’re not renting to you. And, you know, we were looking in fairly high traffic, well-to-do areas. And eventually, we just had a contract through tech, actually, that found us the space and it took off. So that was the first location, but it was a little tricky to find a space without having sort of a background. First,
Chad Franzen 8:29
is there anything that would you say? Like a challenge you have to overcome in terms of getting customers? What would you say maybe like, people think of organic food, and they think of whole foods being really expensive? Is that like a? Is that like a challenge you have to overcome? Or what what would you say is a challenge that you guys have to overcome often?
Matthew Guelke 8:45
Well, that that is a challenge for sure. Because you know, to make a very extreme example, fast food from McDonald’s is always going to be cheaper than sell, you know, places that source from farms that are massive, is going to be cheaper than sourcing from a, you know, an organic farm where they rotate their crops they put, they put cover cover crops every you know, every year so that the soil replenishes but it’s much healthier foods. So I think what the challenge was, it’s a little more expensive. So instead of well back then, you know, sandwich instead of being nine bucks somewhere, it was 11 bucks. Now it’s more like 50 bucks, but especially in San Francisco. So there’s that challenge. However, I think it was met by the fact that there are people out there that are really looking for this kind of food. And so it kind of worked out we kind of had a niche market. What hurt us, which was difficult was a few years later, you had more concepts coming out that were sort of geared or marketed towards green, green, green food or sustainable also is a term that’s used that doesn’t necessarily happen Which meaning when it’s used by some other companies, but so that blurred the niche a little bit, but we just we have a pretty good customer base. So it could worked out, you know? Yeah, sure.
Chad Franzen 10:14
How it did the COVID pandemic impact or change your operations?
Matthew Guelke 10:21
Oh, wow, that’s in such a massive way, quite honestly. I mean, we we shut down four locations? Oh, well, I mean, part of the problem was that being in San Francisco, which is the hardest market for restaurants in America, number one, most difficult, the most expensive place to run a business, especially the restaurant business, and there’s a lot of competition. And in pandemic, San Francisco and California, they basically shut everything down, completely locked down. So at first, as we all know, it was like, okay, you know, we’re going to shut down, everybody are locked down for two or two to four weeks. And so we closed the rest of a bunch of the restaurants. And we, we fully assumed that we’d be reopening. And that went on and on and on and on. And eventually, we just said, we can’t, we can’t handle this rent liability, because there was no protection for the tenants, they could say the protection was you wouldn’t get evicted. But there’s no protection against the rent for closed locations. And we actually got sued by two of our landlords for rent due based on being shut. But we were mandated to shut, right. And we laid off 75-80 employees that we thought, well, first, we didn’t lay them off, we just temporarily closed. But eventually it was a layoff. It was really quite sad, actually. And so we had to really recalibrate. And but honestly, both myself and my business partner, we both took mortgages out on our houses, to pay off lawsuits, because there was no protection. We eat through and now there’s a quite a silver lining in a way, because we’ve re refocused our energy in many ways. So but it was very, very difficult. And I know, many, many restaurateurs that lost everything. And they were very successful beforehand. And now they’re bankrupt and in big trouble.
Chad Franzen 12:24
So, man, I am I’m sorry to hear that. Was there anything maybe like a learning experience that you took from that if it ended up being positive? Like something you learned?
Matthew Guelke 12:33
Yes, well, so what the model we were going along was brick and mortar locations, you know, more and more, and we were up to eight. And then we have one franchise, which we which we license to in SFO terminal two, which was great. I mean, it took a hit during the pandemic, as well, obviously, because of the flights. But the thing about having brick and mortar locations is your, your, our staff went up to was up to 200 at one point. And my job went from being conceptual, you know, marketing and menu and all these kinds of things, to managing people, which isn’t my favorite thing, quite honestly, not managing large numbers of people. So as a result, I mean, we’ve learned a lot, we had several different business models, we had the fast casual neighborhood cafe, we had fast casual, financial downtown district Cafe, and then we had two full service fine dining restaurants. And what we’ve learned pre pandemic was the full service fine dining was not the models, or the model we wanted, because our goal is to get is to proliferate organic foods to the masses. And by having fine dining restaurants, they’re more expensive, there’s more staff, everything has to be perfect. And where we want to kind of spread this law, you know, far and wide so. So as a result of having to close down a bunch of restaurants, and sadly lay off our director, director of operations and our director of technology, etc, etc. I’ve stepped fully back into those roles. And we’ve started licensing our brand. So we’re licensed we’ve licensed our brand to our salad menu to a group called Local kitchens, that takes their favorite, favorite brands and puts them together in one location. We also have several sort of options to franchise out. And that means it’s not your own capital. We’ve been approached by several landlords and different companies saying, Well, you open here, we opened there. And my response is we just closed all these restaurants which costs us millions of dollars, which will be lost sadly. So not looking to open more we want to leverage the brand, so that we can spread it across the country and what I’ve, what I’ve learned is actually some people are against franchising because they think that it affects the brand quality. However, if your goal if you’re careful, and you’ve got a very simple and efficient model, then if you’re if your goal is to expand this, this concept in on a sort of a greater scale, then it’s actually a really a good, a good idea. And I can put my my energies with less staff to just expanding the brand and having a little bit less liability, because well, you don’t have to build the restaurants out ourselves. Right? So I think it’s redirected our brand in a very positive direction, at simplify things for me and for for my remaining staff. But it was sad. I mean, it was difficult to, you know, to close down all these really amazing restaurants, quite honestly.
Chad Franzen 15:48
Yeah, yeah, I would imagine. So you you had, you have five open locations right now, but you had for more than that prior?
Matthew Guelke 15:57
No, we have now we have, we just have to, oh, you have to, to, and then then we license our brand to three others. Okay. And we’ve got three different franchise companies that would like us, to work with them to expand the brand. And so for the last two years, I’ve really been working on creating a scalable model for franchises. And because we’re recognized as one of the most sustainable and again, that that word is used sometimes loosely, but in our case, it’s very honest and accurate. We’re recognized in the unit United States as one of the four, you know, or even globally on the as being on the forefront of that because we don’t, we don’t compromise. We’re just 100% organic, and we say where everything comes from and every single ingredient so and that’s where it’s even more and more popular now. And it should be because it’s you know, if you don’t have your health, you know, nothing else matters. So yeah, we’ve really switched our trajectory to licensing. Yeah.
Chad Franzen 17:06
Okay. What would you say? Would you say that? What you just kind of what you just stated? Makes the plans Cafe organic, and an attractive franchise opportunity. Are there other things as well.
Matthew Guelke 17:22
I think the most attractive thing is the reputation we’ve gained. Also our sales speak kind of speak for themselves. That’s pretty important. But yeah, we we stand the sort of apart from a lot of other brands. And yeah, I remember when I was trying to figure out a name. And at first this is 15 years ago, or so I was thinking it’s got to be green, this or green that and decided against it. And then you had mixed greens and tender greens and sweet greens, all these kinds of companies come out. And we’re different from them, they’re, they’re great, I have nothing negative to say about any of those brands, they’re great, they’re healthy food, they’re good, good, we’re just different in the sense that we’re committed to 100%. And so there are those people looking for that. And as a result, we’ve also figured out we’ve got really good technology and systems in place so that we’re analyzing our food costs every week, so if broccoli or chicken or you know, organic chicken or such a goes up, we’re on it. So we’ve got a very fine tuned system in place at this point. So but I think I think the overall our our track record our brand concept or recognition from all kinds of accolades that we’ve got, and you know, I’ve gone to Bali. And people know, The Plant Cafe people out of New York know The Plant and this is kind of blows my mind how many people know about it, I brought this the plan burger, which we trademarked, and it’s, in my opinion, but I’m biased, obviously, the best plant based burger that I’ve had ever. And I brought the recipe down from Canada and had that and it’s not trying to tastes like meat. The problem with that burgers that tried taste like meat is they’re highly processed, because that’s the only way you can, can do that. So a lot of people have this misconception. Plant based is better few bills, not necessarily Doritos are plant based. They’re not good for you. So ours doesn’t taste like meat, but it’s really good. And so yeah, we’ve got to we’ve got certain things that we built and tweaked over the years that I think make it a really great, exciting opportunity for people to expand on.
Chad Franzen 19:33
Sure, absolutely. What would you look for or do you look for in a potential franchisee?
Matthew Guelke 19:39
Well, I was just having that conversation two days ago with his franchise company. I you know, there’s two there’s two kind of caveats. You have one some franchise groups that want only larger companies that can open five or more and have a ton of experience and then some that will take anyone who comes along and we’re so We’re in the middle of somebody, preferably restaurant experience, is what we look for. But we do get a lot of interest from people that just love the brand. And they say, Hey, we, we love healthy eating, we love your food, and we want to open a restaurant. And we’re open to that. Because again, we want to expand the brand. But what many people that have never run a restaurant, myself included 15 years ago, don’t understand is there’s a lot to it. But that’s the beauty of beauty of franchising is someone who has done it for 10 or 15 years, Ken has already overcome and figured out many of those things I’ve been asked in the past. You know, if you could do something differently now than you did in the past? Is there anything and there’s so many things, you know, if I could go back and know what I know, now that then I would have saved a lot of money?
Chad Franzen 20:46
Yeah. Hey, I was I went through I had a connecting flight in the San Francisco International Airport about a month ago. And I remember seeing your, your restaurant, it was like midnight, so I didn’t have a chance to go anywhere. Deep, but I How have you enjoyed that having that location there?
Matthew Guelke 21:04
Oh, it’s been. It’s been phenomenal. And it, we we I can’t remember what year it was exactly. But basically, terminal two, when it was being built, one of their key requirements was that the concepts that went in there were sustainable. And so we got, we got approached by a few different companies that wanted to franchise us. And we ended up going with one and they had quite a bit of they had several other restaurants. So they knew what they were doing. So they took very little, it took very little training, you know, we train them, of course, and we did the architecture and the menu and everything like that with them. And we check on their ingredients regularly. But it’s been great because it’s been high exposure. And we get constant feedback, saying, hey, there’s get into airports and there’s nothing else and then we saw your location and we’re so happy. And that place that that location. Its sales are unbelievable. I mean, for per square footage, I’ve told some potential investors and they they think I’m I must be mistaken. I mean, I think the square footage is probably about six or 700 square feet is airport, and they’re doing between 250 and 300 grand sales a month. Wow. It’s that’s I mean,
Chad Franzen 22:28
you know, I would like the airports would be good because you have kind of a you have kind of a captive audience I guess for lack lack of a better way to put it. You know, there’s, there’s just people there, and they need something to do or something to eat. And yeah, and you’ve got
Matthew Guelke 22:41
and when you’re one of the only sort of healthy brands because there’s lots of bars with burgers and all this stuff, then all of a sudden for whatever that segment is that kind of appreciates healthy food and organic, sustainable, ethically sourced. It’s like a Bing Bing Bing. It’s a little lighthouse. So it’s, yeah, it’s been great.
Chad Franzen 23:01
I have one more question for you. But first, tell me how people can find out more about The Plant Cafe Organic, either as a customer or a potential franchisee?
Matthew Guelke 23:11
Well, I read every email that comes to email@example.com. So I’ll see all of those. Our website is www.theplantcafe.com. And then if you Google The Plant Cafe, or you Google my name, you will see all kinds of articles. Whether it’s an app that I wrote in an environmental magazine, or just a ton of information.
Chad Franzen 23:39
So, when you when you go to The Plant yourself, what’s kind of your go to item of choice or meal of choice.
Matthew Guelke 23:48
Um, my one is the plant burger, which as I said, it’s really good, and it’s really good. Another one is we do a salmon dish called ginger, lime, ginger, lime salmon, and the salmon is wild and line caught and sustainable. So it’s the best fish you can get. Like, if you went to the highest, most fine dining restaurant, it would be the same quality. And but we one of the things is we try and keep our food costs accessible to the customers. And so a lot of these third party delivery systems, you know, delivery companies come to me and I’m like, No, we can’t work with you because we’re not our margins aren’t that high where we can take a 25% cut, you know, so we were trying to keep it accessible. It’s not as cheap as McDonald’s or you know, some of these other places obviously, but we’re trying to keep it sort of accessible but so ginger wine salmon, I really love the salad, which is called the chicken Meizu Mizo chicken cashew salad, which was inspired by a dish I had in Bali, which is where one of my sisters lives or should talk he spent minerals are great. And then the juices my favorite juice, which is healthy. There’s no sugar in it is called the Green detox, which is Romaine in kale, lemon cucumber, and some spice. Wow, sounds great.
Chad Franzen 25:13
Hey, Matthew, it’s been great to talk to you best of luck with everything moving forward with The Plant Cafe Organic and it’s been great to hear your story and all of your all of your insights. Thank you so much.
Matthew Guelke 25:24
Thank you. Great interview.
Chad Franzen 25:27
So long everybody.
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