By Abby Langer, Foodable Contributor
In the Toronto cold of January 2013, a fresh idea came into fruition: Kupfert & Kim opened its doors to its first customers, pioneering a wheatless and meatless vegan fast casual restaurant that would prove to be a huge, unexpected hit in Toronto’s Financial District.
The brainchild of Daniel Suss and Mark Kupfert, Kupfert & Kim is a 200-square-foot fast casual restaurant based on the belief that fast food can be healthy and delicious. How does a meatless, wheatless, vegan restaurant become so successful? We had the pleasure of sitting down with Daniel to pick his brain about his and Mark’s success.
The Backstory: Bridging a Gap in the Market
Daniel grew up in a largely vegetarian, health-conscious household, and he always sought out healthy options when he was away from home. When he worked in downtown Toronto for a year at a law firm, he and his peers craved healthy food at lunchtime, but there were few options available to them. It was then that he had the idea to open a restaurant to fill that niche.
Neither Daniel nor Mark had any professional foodservice experience before opening Kupfert & Kim, but they created the recipes for the restaurant and prepared them in their home kitchens, testing them on family and friends. To help with the restaurant, they outsourced and found great chefs and other people to help make their vision a reality.
In describing the restaurant’s philosophy, Daniel says, “Mark and I understand that despite the trends, there’s still a large number of people who are turned off by buzzwords like vegan, vegetarian, or health, thinking the food won’t taste good, won’t be filling. One important goal is to give off an aesthetic that doesn’t turn those people off – not blasting ideology, but a much more fun and modern, sexy aesthetic that is generally appealing. People come back because the food tastes good and they feel good after eating it.”
A Narrow Focus Brings in a (Surprisingly) Diverse Crowd
Strictly vegan, wheatless, and meatless to accommodate many diets, the restaurant offers only minimally processed food with gluten-free grain alternatives — mainly brown rice, quinoa and amaranth. Daniel feels that there are plenty of options within the gluten-free sphere that can be used to create appealing meal options for his customers.
Daniel estimates that not more than 10% of Kupfert & Kim’s customers are vegan or vegetarian. About 50% of customers are actively seeking the type of food the restaurant is serving, the other 50% stumble upon the restaurant, go on recommendation, or have a sense that the restaurant’s food is healthy and they want to try it.
Finding a Balance for On-the-Go Customers Demanding More
Kupfert & Kim’s menu has been thought out completely with the aim that the meals are nutritionally balanced — they don’t want customers to have to put any thought into balancing their meal; they want customers to be able to grab their food and go with the knowledge that whatever they order is going to be ready quickly, and be filling, healthy, tasty, and reasonably priced.
The restaurant doesn’t have sit-down service and has lower prices than many of the surrounding non-chain restaurants, making it more accessible to people who are short on time and perhaps money, as well.
The restaurant puts out a meal every 30 seconds. Restaurant staff use iPads to take orders while customers are in the line so the kitchen can start on the order while the customer waits and pays.
Breaking Down the Menu
Kupfert & Kim’s menu is small — one special a day, every day, which changes with the seasons. There are five main meal options, which have not changed much, mostly because they’re all popular.
Daniel understands that if Kupfert & Kim wants to do vegan, meatless, and wheatless well, they need to place a special emphasis on the food products they procure to create their dishes with.
To purchase their produce, the duo follows the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, which captures the foods with the most pesticides — greens and berries, amongst others. For those items, the restaurant buys strictly organic. All soy and corn products are also purchased organic. Daniel and Mark get to know all of their suppliers personally to guarantee that they meet the restaurant’s standards.
They employ a traditional tofu maker to ensure that their tofu is processed with the least amount of additives possible. Rice, beans, and some vegetables are not purchased organic to keep the restaurant’s entrée prices at a certain level. Daniel broke it down for us: If the restaurant used no organics, they would need to charge $9 a dish. With select organics, which is what they do now, the cost to the customer is $11 a dish. And if they chose to use all organic ingredients, each dish would be $15.
In terms of nutrition, each dish has a protein, such as tofu, black beans, edamame, chickpeas, and nuts and seeds. Even smoothies have hemp seed, and almond and peanut butter to ensure that they have a source of protein.
Dishes are served with the grain, legume, or tofu hot, and some vegetables such as bok choy, lightly steamed. To add a crunchy texture, they use tortilla or vegetable chips, raw vegetables, dark leafy greens or sprouts. Each dish is a delicious combination of warm, cold, crunchy and soft.
Advice to Chefs & Operators
Daniel offers advice to operators who want to incorporate vegan, wheat-free and meat-free entrées onto their menu: “If your barrier is that you feel it’s daunting, it’s actually very doable. Usually the token vegetarian option is not very good because the chef didn’t get basic advice about how to put a vegetarian dish together. A vegetarian option needs to be balanced with carbohydrate, protein and fat, and it should have a whole grain. Your protein can be a legume supplemented with nuts and seeds — don’t shy away from fat. The dish must be tasty, not bland. Most importantly, don’t try to be everything to everyone — low fat, low salt, gluten-free. If you have too many restrictions, then you’ll have no fans. There’s also no question that supplies have to be top quality, but even more importantly, when that is the main event, produce must be top quality and fresh.”
Check out Kupfert & Kim here.