In good news for people who love plant-based dining, the CEO of vegan chain Native Foods is about to be inducted into the Fast Casual Hall of Fame. Carin Stutz will share the limelight with two other inductees at Fast Casual’s Executive Summit in Indianapolis on October 9. This honor is one more indication that vegan food is going more and more mainstream. Stutz talked to Inhabitat about her award and what it means for vegan dining.

Wait, there’s a Fast Casual Hall of Fame?

Fast casual dining became popular starting in the 1990s. It’s a little nicer and pricier than fast food, but still on the less expensive side of the restaurant spectrum. You often order at the counter and have the choice of dining in or getting your food to go. Fast casual food is usually made-to-order, including items like bowls, salads, burritos and sandwiches. Often, the restaurants offer relatively health-conscious choices. Chains are highly branded and don’t usually have drive-throughs.

Related: Vegan Fried Chicken is exploring new ways of yummy

And yes, there is such a thing as a Fast Casual Hall of Fame. But it’s an award, not a brick-and-mortar building., which has reported on news, trends and VIPs within the fast-casual dining industry since 1997, puts on the annual executive summit.

When I asked Stutz if she thought it was unusual for a vegan restaurant to win this honor, I learned that the hall of fame is new. “I am part of the inaugural class, so it is not necessarily unusual,” she said. “But it certainly speaks to the power, credibility and belief that plant-based is here to stay.”

Jalapeno popper burger on a wheat bun

More about Native Foods

Tanya Petrovna, also known as Chef Tanya, founded Native Foods in Palm Springs in 1994. She actively ran the small restaurant chain until selling it to Andrea McGinty and Daniel Dolan in 2009. The chain grew to a zenith (so far) of 26 units in 2014 but then shrunk down to 13 restaurants in four states as owners attempted to refine the brand. In 2018, Millstone Capital Advisors acquired Native Foods.  The buyer was probably moved in part by a 2017 GlobalData study that showed the number of Americans who identified themselves as vegans jumped 600% between 2014 and 2017. However, Native Foods has asserted that the majority of its customers eat meat, but enjoy the brand’s delicious foods. Either way, it seemed like a moneymaker.

“It is definitely becoming more mainstream but we have a long way to go,” Stutz said. “It is exciting to see more people willing to try plant-based items, more celebrities embracing this lifestyle and the incredible innovation in this space. We like to think that at Native Foods we give guests, who are not necessarily vegan, the opportunity to try a plant-based way of eating.”

A large salad on a blue backdrop

Native Foods woos vegans and omnivores with hearty, delicious meals. The Backyard BBQ Bowl features a choice of crispy barbecue cauliflower or plant-based pork. The Poppin’ Jalapeno Burger has two patties and multiple vegan kinds of cheese. I can personally attest to the deliciousness of the key lime cheesecake parfait.

“What I love about our brand is that it has stood the test of time because it has consistently focused on quality food and ingredients, with an innovative, chef-crafted menu,” said Stutz. “I want the brand to grow significantly so more people get to enjoy plant-based great food, enjoy a healthier lifestyle and take better care of our planet.”

Current locations include Chicago and multiple cities in both Colorado and California. More locations coming soon, I hope.

Awards ceremony and conference

Stutz comes from a solid food service background, rather than a vegan one. Before becoming president and CEO of Native Foods, she held leadership positions with many famous restaurant brands, including Red Robin, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, and Chili’s and serves on several food industry boards.

The other two honorees in the inaugural class of the Fast Casual Hall of Fame are Carl Howard and Blaine Hurst. Howard is CEO of Fazoli’s, an Italian deli chain, where he rebranded, reengineered the menu and expanded catering programs. Hurst improved the technology and created the industry’s largest loyalty program while working as vice chairman and CEO of Panera Bread.

Orange cauliflower meal on a white plate

The Fast Casual Summit kicks off on October 9. Conference sessions will focus on topics like ghost restaurants, supply chain management and the effects of delivery apps on fast-casual restaurants. Dinner at the Dallara IndyCar Factory will surely be a highlight, especially for participants who sign up for a ride around town in a street-legal Indycar.

For those who care about plant-based food, it’s awesome that Stutz is one of three awardees in this very mainstream event. “I’m incredibly honored and humbled,” she said. “With nearly five decades in this business, I feel this honor recognizes my contributions to the industry, our communities and a willingness to volunteer and give back. Throughout my entire career, I have always followed the growth and plant-based is the perfect next chapter.”

Images via Native Foods