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I’ve been writing a lot about the plant-based QSR lately, so when I recently got the chance to visit the new location of Copper Branch, a plant-based restaurant company from Canada, I jumped at it.
Across its franchise locations, which span Canada and are now making their way into the States, Copper Branch offers quick-service food that’s entirely plant-based. The company’s latest location to open, and its second in the U.S., is in Nashville, Tennessee — conveniently down the street from my house.
Upon visiting, however, it became clear that food is only one part of Copper Branch’s mission. The company is, it seems, less about selling plant-based foods and more about reinventing what it means to be a quick-service restaurant (QSR).
Despite the popularity in recent years of items like the Impossible Whopper and the Beyond Taco, the average QSR is better known for greasy burgers, salty fries, and sodas drunk out of non-recyclable cups. I love an occasional trip to the drive-thru as much as the next person, but those indulgences come with health and planetary costs that are becoming increasingly more problematic in light of climate change and chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity.
Copper Branch’s model is compelling because the company’s goal is bigger than simply making plant-based foods accessible to mainstream consumers’ palates. Over a recent call, CEO Trish Paterson talked about the company’s “triangular focus” when it comes to sustainability. The goal is to strike a balance between human health, animal welfare, and planetary health when it comes to food, packaging, operations, and everything else it takes to run a restaurant. The bigger-picture mission is to “change people’s mindsets of what fast food really is.”
In the case of Copper Branch, fast food means partnerships with companies like Eat Just (eggs) and Field Roast (cheese, meat) to recreate scrambles, burgers, chili, and other dishes made entirely from plants. At the same time, the company also prioritizes local partnerships for certain items, which is itself a form of sustainability. For example, the Nashville location serves coffee from Bongo Java, a beloved local roaster and one of the oldest independent coffee shops in town. Paterson says the local partnerships are intentional and a means of supporting local business and communities surrounding each Copper Branch location. Franchisees are expected to spend “a percentage of their revenue on local activities and giving back to their own communities,” which includes sourcing coffees, desserts, and other items from around town.
Packaging is another important part of the operation. Copper Branch has used compostable straws and cutlery for years, as well as compostable water bottles. A little more challenging are the to-go boxes for the food, which have to be lined with plastic to keep food hot during transport. Paterson said the company has considered a “bring your own container” program, though for the moment that’s on hold due to the pandemic.
All of this sustainability doesn’t come cheap, though. Paterson said right now the biggest challenge for her company is the price point of menu items. For instance, a “Copper Burger Deluxe” at the restaurant costs $8.95. An Impossible Whopper is $5.89 by comparison.
“The ingredients that we use will never lend themselves to put us on that price point,” she says of the standard QSR menu. Instead, Copper Branch sees its job as helping consumers to understand the higher price points as “investing” in their own health and that of the planet.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Getting consumers in front of actual products, preferably eating in the restaurant, are important parts of educating consumers. That education doesn’t have to be preachy, either. A good meal speaks for itself. If that meal can be got as quickly and conveniently as the experience at a place like McDonald’s, consumers may be willing to pay a little more.
Even if they’re not, the price point for plant-based, sustainably packaged foods may yet come down. For her part, Paterson believes we’ll get closer to that point. “The more advanced research and development gets, the lower the cost structure becomes, and those products will become more mainstream.”
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