On a Thursday night in late April, vegan glitterati and local Portland food influencers descended upon Oregon’s newest Next Level Burger location for a special preview. Coconut-based milkshakes flowed and phones snapped endless photos of high-stacked burgers and chik’n sandwiches still steaming from the kitchen. Crinkle fries, sweet potato fries and Yukon gold tater tots shimmered under bright lights. It was a big night for a brand with a wild plan for quick expansion and saving the world. On this opening night, NLB launched its eighth location. Soon, they hope to see their thousandth.
Fighting climate change
When you check out Next Level Burger’s website, the first thing you see is “FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE.” In smaller lettering, a flag pinned in a tall cheeseburger proclaims, “America’s first 100% plant-based burger joint.” A backdrop of moving clouds alludes to the endangered ozone layer.
“My whole family’s vegan,” said CEO and Cofounder Matt de Gruyter at the opening event. “But we didn’t start for vegans.”
For Next Level Burger, sustainability is front and center. The restaurant endeavors to create such delicious fast casual sandwiches that people might not necessarily notice they’re vegan.
“People from all walks of life eat at Next Level Burger. Contractors coming off job sites, yogis carrying their yoga mats,” he said.
It’s an idyllic vision, and one that doesn’t always pan out. My 60-something neighbor described his consternation when he wandered into the NLB. He expected an average burger joint, but was flummoxed by not being able to get a normal Coke, let alone a hamburger.
But somebody has to raise the common denominator if it’s ever going to get raised at all. And NLB is long on ideals. The chain sources organic and non-GMO foods, pays a living wage and chases sustainability in all its practices.
The Next Level menu
If you’re vegan, you’ve probably been out to dinner with friends at an ordinary, non-veg restaurant where somebody helpfully reads the menu for you and says, “Look, you can get a salad.” Sure, you can order salad at Next Level, even one that sounds really good, like a farmhouse Caesar or a crispy chik’n bacon cobb.
But people really come for the sandwiches, fries and milkshakes. You can opt for the earthy, house-made mushroom and quinoa patty of the Blue BBQ Burger, topped with bacon, faux blue cheese and barbecue sauce. Or go more realistically meaty with the Ghost Pepper Popper Burger, which features a house-seasoned beyond patty stuffed with jalapeno cream cheese, topped with pepper jack cheese, pickled jalapeno, tomato, lettuce and ghost pepper ranch dressing on a delicious pretzel bun.
There’s also a whole section of chik’n sandwiches and four different vegan bratwurst sandwiches. You can get fries loaded down with chili cheese or beer cheese sauce, topped with tempeh bacon and green onions. The shakes come with the choice of a coconut or soy soft serve base.
Matt and his wife Cierra de Gruyter opened the original Next Level Burger in Bend, Oregon in 2014. They consider it their proof of concept.
“It was us playing restaurant,” said de Gruyter. “We had this idea. We were figuring out the prototype.” The de Gruyter family still lives in Bend, but they closed that location after the five-year lease was up. It’s a difficult labor market, de Gruyter said. But it was hard to close the store, and he met disappointment from within the family. “My kids are the world’s biggest fans of Next Level Burger.”
Now his children will have to go to Portland to experience NLB. Or Austin, Brooklyn, Seattle, San Francisco or the East Bay. Soon, they’ll be able to scarf down a Spicy Kraut Brat in Denver, too. The opening I attended in Portland was the eighth NLB location. De Gruyter plans to have 28 locations by the end of 2025. And one thousand in the next 10 to 30 years, depending on how it goes.
I asked him if he plans new locations based on the number of vegans.
“It’s all about location,” he responded. “We look for communities we can anchor.”
Educational stats figure into NLB’s calculations. They look for places with a high awareness of climate change and sustainability. The new Denver location will be right by the University of Denver.
De Gruyter told me about a conversation he once had with John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods. Mackey asked de Gruyter what his big audacious goals were.
“When I said I wanted to open a thousand Next Level Burgers, I saw his eyebrows go up. Because that was also his goal for Whole Foods,” he said.
The organic grocery giant is already halfway there. Maybe Ghost Pepper Popper Burgers and Beyond Crispy Chik’n Tenders will soon be available in every college town from Tuscaloosa to Eugene.
Photography by Teresa Bergen