Hart House aims to be a disruptor in the fast food world in ways both small and large.
One small touch is the Dyson hand dryers built into the faucets in the restrooms. A larger goal, according to chief executive officer Andy Hooper, is to completely reimagine the industry.
Somewhere in between is the plant-based menu.
Hart House is a startup chain founded by comedian Kevin Hart that serves vegan food. It opened its first restaurant in August and in 10 months has grown to four in Los Angeles County.
The newest location will have its grand opening on Wednesday, June 21, in a former Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf store on Figueroa Street.
After that, Andy Hooper wants to bring it to all of Southern California and beyond.
Hart House came about because the comedian wanted to share the benefits of a plant-based diet, Hooper said in a phone interview.
He met Hart about a year ago and discovered they shared a vision for the future of plant-based foods and what they could mean to the fast food industry.
“The two of us had very similar feelings about where the industry needed to head, both in what we serve and how we serve those who serve,” Hooper said in a phone interview.
Hart House serves the basics: burgers, chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders and shakes, all without animal protein.
Although the protein comes from proprietary recipes using peas and soy, Hart House doesn’t emphasize that its menu is vegan. It is hoping customers will enjoy the food for its taste.
“We call it can’t-believe-it flavor,” said Marcus Byrd, director of brand and marketing. “Good food at a sustainable price is a winner across the board.”
By comparison, Byrd said, “When you’re talking about the plant-based market, you can easily spend $25-$30 to get it done.”
The vegan menu is just the beginning of Hooper’s vision for Hart House.
“I have always wanted the opportunity to really build what I saw as the future of the quick service space within restaurants,” he said.
A self-described “lifelong restaurateur,” Hooper’s experience includes leadership positions in &Pizza, Cafe Rio Mexican Grill and Burger King.
He sees in Hart House an opportunity to change the way fast food chains operate.
“We wanted to completely reimagine what the industry would need to look like if it was going to be truly sustainable for the next 50 years,” he said.
“We start with the idea that the labor model needs to be sustainable.”
The strategy is to increase employee retention through salaries and benefits to the point where turnover drops and efficiencies kick in from of trained workers who know their jobs and know each other.
“It drives significant efficiencies,” Hooper said. “Not only are you not having to relearn somebody’s name and work habits, but all the proficiency that you build in the small things, you actually get the benefit. Our employees end up being 1½ or even 2 times as productive as those in other brands. And that means we can continue to invest in them because we’re seeing a return on that investment in terms of productivity.”
Crew jobs at Hart House pay around $18-$19 an hour, according to job search website.
Hooper said that employee turnover at fast food restaurants can be upwards of 200%, “which means basically your entire staff swaps out twice every 12 months. That’s crazy.”
Hart House is at 88%, he said.
“So that’s less than half, and that’s still not where I want us to be, to be clear.”
Building the pipeline
Since August, Hart House has opened four restaurants in diverse locations with different kinds of customers. The first, in Westchester, is aimed at travelers from nearby Los Angeles International Airport. The second, in November, is in a more residential neighborhood of Monrovia. The third, a drive-thru across Sunset Boulevard from Hollywood High School, is in a tourist destination. It opened in May.
The Figueroa restaurant that opens Wednesday is smaller, with fewer inside seats, aiming for foot traffic from college students at nearby USC.
“It’s a really interesting opportunity to do another thing that a new brand might do, which is to go straight to a campus and prove that the next generation of consumers will adopt and fall in love with the brand,” he said.
“We were very intentional about having four very distinct experiences, not just replicating the same thing every time, because we want to learn. We want to figure out how people respond. Parallel to that we build the pipeline.”
Hooper plans to continue with rapid growth. The goal is to open 12-15 restaurants next year, 20-30 the following year, and have close to 100 units by the end of 2026.
“A significant investment will be made in Southern California, but we’re also looking looking for real estate in other markets now to be able to support that expansion.
Locations: 8901 S Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles; 6800 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 3726 S Figueroa St., Los Angeles; 602 W Huntington Drive, Monrovia.