Daniel Dolan on Fresh Food and Fresh Design

Daniel Dolan and his wife, Andrea McGinty, weren’t even vegetarians, let alone vegans, when they stumbled across one of the two original Native Foods Café vegan restaurants in Palm Springs, California. The pair were instant fans, though, because they simply enjoyed the food. The place soon became their go-to lunch spot, and they eventually got to know chef Tanya Petrovna, who founded the eatery in 1994. By 2009, she wanted to expand the company across the country, but she had no idea how, so she approached the couple, who had entrepreneurial experience, including work with It’s Just Lunch International LLC. “We were retired at the time, but we really were very passionate about the brand,” says Dolan, who, along with his wife, has now been a vegan for more than five years. “I’m not a restaurant lifer, and I didn’t come from another restaurant chain. Sometimes people ask, ‘What made you go into the restaurant business?’ and I say that I’m not in the restaurant business—I’m in the Native Foods business.” He and his wife agreed to Petrovna’s offer and put together an investment group to make the purchase, and today they’re bringing the fast-casual chain to unique spaces in major cities around the United States while staying true to the brand’s original values regarding the production of socially responsible, chef-crafted, plant-based food.

Native Foods moved into Chicago when it found three viable locations it could take over in six months. The company follows this procedure in each new city.
Native Foods moved into Chicago when it found three viable locations it could take over in six months. The company follows this procedure in each new city.

Like any restaurant worth its salt and pepper, Native Foods focuses first on what it’s feeding people. The chain stands out in the fast-casual sector with a scratch kitchen in each of its locations that makes all its own sauces, dressings, desserts, and drinks on-site daily. It makes seven different varieties of seitan and is the only chain in America that makes its own tempeh. It also adds new specials to its menu monthly and updates the menu entirely three times a year to prove that a vegan eatery can offer just as much variety as any other. “We’re going after flavorful food since most of our guests are not vegetarian,” Dolan says. “Most of them just eat with us because they like our food.”

To help catch the interest of those who might be less familiar with the chain or with vegan offerings in general, Native Foods is also committed to local engagement. Its locations offer free cooking demos and work with community gardens and animal shelters, and they tap area artists to create their interior artwork. Newer locations are also LEED-certified. And, on a national level, the chain has long-term partnership agreements with organizations such as the Surf Rider Foundation, Mercy For Animals, and Farm Sanctuary.

The Chicago location, like all Native Foods sites, is corporately owned. The company has no current plans to offer franchising opportunities.
The Chicago location, like all Native Foods sites, is corporately owned. The company has no current plans to offer franchising opportunities.

Dolan and his team are currently looking to expand into up to 10 cities, the ultimate goal being to have 200 locations by decade’s end. When choosing one city over another, they first find three locations they want to open within six months. “If we don’t have three that we like, we’re going to walk away from it,” Dolan says. This happened recently in Philadelphia, when Dolan’s team thought it was in leasing negotiations for three spaces and the deal for the downtown location fell through at the last minute. Instead of going ahead with the other two and finding a replacement, the team remained disciplined and walked away from all the projects.

In addition to considering a new location’s demographics and real estate logistics, “we also like to pride ourselves in looking at different opportunities and unique spaces,” Dolan says. “None of our stores look alike.” A favorite location of both patrons and the company is located in Costa Mesa, California; it’s in a yurt. Also, not long ago, the company tried for months to put a location in an old townhouse in Washington, DC, but ultimately it didn’t pan out. “We like funky,” Dolan says. “Whereas most fast casuals would say, ‘No, that’s not our cookie-cutter space,’ we’ve spent months and months trying out cool spaces that we’ve ended up not being able to do, but we like that.”

Native Foods currently has no plans to open itself up to franchising, so Dolan spends much of his time being a brand ambassador and finding other people and managers who are passionate about Native Food’s mission to “Change The Way America Eats.” He and his team want to open restaurants as fast as possible, but they know it’s important to first find the right people and the spaces that best fit the brand.

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