Recently I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jonah Goldman, co-founder and director of strategic marketing at PLNT Burger.
It was during a Foie Gras Free DC event when we first became acquainted. I was immediately impressed by his tireless work ethic and inspired by his dedication to the movement.
In addition to his many impressive credentials, a marketing specialist, social entrepreneur, and environmental activist with a background in the natural food industry, Jonah has a bottomless passion for what he does.
His infectious enthusiasm and personality are what I believe drive his success – not only as a master of marketing but an advocate for sustainable change.
In between flipping burgers (yes he gets his hands dirty), taking care of his customers, and wowing the crowd with his million-dollar smile, we were able to chat for a bit at PLNT Burger’s flagship and first-ever location in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is what he had to say…
Please tell me a little bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland as the eldest of three sons. As a child, I was very inquisitive and rebellious. I was raised on burgers, hotdogs, chicken, pizza, and steaks like most American kids. I never thought to question my food because it was so universally accepted. Then, when I was 10, I took a trip to an animal sanctuary where I got to come face-to-face with animals that had escaped their fate of winding up on a plate. The roosters, cows, pigs, goats, and every animal we encountered showed such friendliness towards us and exhibited a range of emotions that I had previously thought only humans had the capacity for. After an unbelievably fun day, my father took us to dinner at our favorite rotisserie chicken spot, El Pollo Rico. As we watched the bodies slowly roasting on the metal skewers I asked: “What’s the difference between these chickens and the ones we were playing with all day?” My father grasped for a response, and at that point, I recognized the uncomfortable truth. There was no difference, just the chickens in the sanctuary were rescued and the ones turning on the skewers were the victims. That was the moment that I stopped eating animals and became passionate about studying and changing food systems. After 3 years of persistence, I convinced my family to stop eating animals as well. I went on to study food systems in depth and became conscious of our global food system’s social, environmental, health, and economic impacts. The more I learned, the stronger my conviction that we must repair this unjust system became.
How did your parents being entrepreneurs impact your thinking?
My parents have given me a unique view of systemic change. Both my parents are social and environmental entrepreneurs. By creating mission-driven businesses, and founding impactful, non-profit organizations, my parents instilled in me the importance of finding your passion and purpose in life and using your abilities to make the world a better place. By demonstrating that a business can be a force for good, and can do positive things for all stakeholders (not just the shareholders), my parents have inspired me and an entire generation of entrepreneurs to develop marketplace solutions and build brands that don’t just make money, but make the world a better place.
How was veganism introduced to you?
Since age 10 after that sanctuary visit and becoming a vegetarian, I aligned with the philosophy of causing the least possible harm to the other sentient beings on the planet. My family and I had stopped eating animal meat at that point but still had local eggs and cheese in our diet. In 2019, we all went fully vegan after watching the documentary The Game Changers.
Did you have any vegan family members or friends to inspire and support you?
I consider myself extremely lucky that both of my brothers, my parents, and my wife are all vegan. I have a few cousins who are also fully vegan and many more that are on their way!
At what age did you become vegan?
I became vegetarian at age 10 and fully vegan at age 27(in January of 2019)
How was PLNT Burger developed?
PLNT Burger was developed as a concept in 2018 in conversations and pitch decks. As a plant-based family, we had always craved compassionate and planet-friendly alternatives to our favorite foods like burgers, nuggets, and shakes. My father worked with Beyond Meat to scale their product and impacted and led them through a crucial growth phase and an IPO. When my father met Chef Spike Mendelsohn at a food policy panel, he slipped a cooler of Beyond burgers to him under the table, and from there, the idea was planted. Weeks later, we all started ideating and discussing PLNT Burger on Zoom calls. At the time I was working for a compostable packaging company in Israel. I had created business plans for a plant-based burger/food rescue concept and gladly offered my perspective and support in developing PLNT Burger. The more we spoke, the more the idea evolved and in June of 2019, I moved back to the United States from Israel to co-found the company, pitch the idea to Whole Foods, and open our first restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland in September 2019.
Did you have any formal business education?
I took part in a startup incubator program at Colorado College, which led to the creation of my first for-profit and nonprofit organizations. While I did take classes in economics, I majored in political science and studied food policy, specifically.
With so many vegan restaurants closing, what is the secret to PLNT Burger’s success?
I believe that PLNT Burger’s dedication to convenience, price, service, and flavor as well as our commitment to radical inclusivity have been critical to our success. We are also an extremely lean startup which has helped us survive in a difficult environment for plant-based restaurants. Our partnership with Whole Foods has also been incredibly helpful in exposing our brand to new audiences and allowing us to scale without risking too much capital.
Can you describe 3 major benchmarks in the PLNT Burger story that are responsible for where you are today?
- Opening our first restaurant in a 110 ft.² kiosk inside the Whole Foods in Silver Spring, Maryland in September 2019
- Opening our first brick-and-mortar location in New York City’s Union Square in January 2022
- Opening our first location in the Ink Block, Massachusetts Whole Foods in April 2022
What is your basic philosophy when it comes to vegan food and how it fits into the Standard American Diet, especially when it comes to the fast food market?
We are focused on serving people planet-friendly alternatives to fast food. Now more than ever, we are seeing the destructive impacts of fast food on our environment, our health, farm workers, and farm animals. Our philosophy is to disrupt the least sustainable industries on the planet by offering the same foods as our industry competitors but without all of the negative downsides. There are definite health advantages to consuming plant-based fast food alternatives. We proudly offer a variety of options that range from superfoods that are incredibly healthy to more indulgent offerings like double cheeseburgers.
How would you say PLNT Burger has changed the AR movement and the vegan community?
I hope we have not only provided nourishment to the AR movement and the vegan community but expanded the movement to encompass more people who were not initially part of it. By offering familiar American classics to omnivores in an uplifting, empowering, and family-friendly setting, we aim to expand the community and further educate consumers on the impacts of their dietary choices.
As a trailblazer and founder of a groundbreaking company, what advice do you have for others who have an idea and would like to capitalize on it?
Do it. The world needs more good people manifesting their good ideas! Take small steps to create your vision and be ready to embrace change, the only true constant in life. Fail quickly and learn quickly. Ask others for help. Identify your weaknesses and bring people onto your team who have those strengths.
What would you say are the top ten most important principles of launching a sustainable, stable, lucrative, and compassionate business in the present economic climate?
- Identify your mission. What are you trying to achieve?
- Identify your strategy. How are you going to achieve your mission?
- Identify your vehicle. What product or service is going to lead to the outcomes identified in your mission?
- Identify action items to set these vehicles in motion.
- Create a core team of people who share your vision and are better than you at doing the things that need to be done to run the business. Be lean and always question the ROI of new resources or new hires.
- Compellingly articulate your mission.
- Embrace change and be ready to pivot rapidly.
- Always, ALWAYS treat people with respect.
- Communicate constantly with your team.
- Question everything about the business and stay connected to the customer.
How important is veganism to planet Earth’s future? Why?
Veganism is critical to planet Earth’s future. The planet is in an environmental catastrophe, and the majority of an individual’s environmental footprint comes from their dietary choices.
What does the future hold for PLNT Burger?
More growth! Stay tuned!
Will you expand into other states?
How do you juggle your professional life and personal life?
It can be difficult, but I am lucky to have an amazing wife, great friends, family, and hobbies. I find it makes me more efficient with work if I set aside time for exercise or just time spent in nature.
Where do you see the food science, plant-based food product industry going from here?
The plant-based industry has been hit hard with blowback from the meat and dairy industries. Consumers are now confused about the environmental and health benefits of plant-based products. This disparity between reality and fiction needs to be addressed with clear messaging and innovation that addresses some of the valid concerns around monoculture crop production. I think there will be a shift towards mycelium and fermentation-based products, which can be produced incredibly efficiently and in environments that are not dependent upon any variables, like sunlight or outside temperature.
What are some of the events you have spoken at?
I’ve spoken at ChangeNOW, the New Products Conference, the Nation’s Restaurant News (CREATE) Conference, and the Plant-Based World Expo.
What does veganism mean to you?
Veganism is ultimately more than a diet. Veganism is a philosophy of causing the least harm possible to the other sentient creatures on the planet and doing your best to act in accordance with that philosophy and the value of compassion for all life.
What advice do you have for young activists just getting started in the movement?
Go for it! There’s never been a better time to advocate on behalf of animals, the planet, and the humans who are affected by a broken food system.
What would you change about the movement and how we interact with each other?
I think as a movement we need to focus on achieving realistic goals. There are many policy changes and other outcomes that the vast majority of people can agree with. For example, getting rid of gestation crates. These common-sense changes will lead to a much healthier food system and a more conscientious consumer base.
Are you working on anything right now that is animal rights related?
I am working on some strategic activations and campaigns that would benefit animal welfare and shift momentum toward greater animal rights. The high-level goal of my work is to bring about more just, resilient, compassionate, and secure food systems. I can’t say too much on that right now but stay tuned.
How do you interact with the community…inside the vegan community as well as outside?
I am an enthusiastic supporter and member of the vegan community, and I’m excited to find ways to further support the activists and groups that are making progress.
What are some additional challenges you feel the animal rights community is experiencing?
Aside from collective societal cognitive dissonance around animal-rights issues, we face an extremely well-organized, and well-executed PR and media campaign from the meat and dairy industries. The government funds meat and milk industry propaganda, so now we have to contend with things like Queen Latifah telling people to not be ashamed of drinking the secretions of a mother cow.
How would you advise the community to create the best possible results for the animals?
We need to unite with environmental groups, human rights groups, and reasonable activists in other spaces to achieve our vision of a more just and sustainable food system. Identifying low-hanging fruit like just enforcing regulations in factory farms, would mean a world of difference to animals.
This is your platform. Please feel free to say anything you feel is important to you regardless of the questions.
On a much lighter and joyful note, I was recently married at the same animal sanctuary, Poplar Spring, that changed my life as a child!