Rio Infantino was a veteran of the fast-food world when it all caught up with him. The routine, the travel and the easy access to abundant meals had left the foodservice executive heavy and despondent, in body and soul. Then, when an investigation into the benefits of a plant-based diet showed him the possibilities of a wholesale lifestyle change, the Montreal-based entrepreneur discovered there weren’t any fast-casual restaurants around to satisfy his new dietary preferences — so, he built one.

Today, Copper Branch, Foodservice and Hospitality’s Company of the Year for 2019, saves other plant-based consumers the frustrations Infantino endured. The five-year-old company found instant success with its plant-based menu and holds the distinction of being the largest and fastest-growing plant-based fast-casual chain in the world. There are approximately 70 Copper Branch units across Canada, the U.S. and Europe, including five in France and one in Belgium. In January, the Montreal-based operation opened two stores in France and one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It opened a store in New York City in September and has announced plans to open 50 new locations over the next couple of years throughout Canada, the U.S. and select European countries. Copper Branch will open five new locations within the next year alone, including its first-ever Vancouver outpost and several spots in the Greater Toronto Area and near Montreal.

The concept is infectious, says Tara Pekeles, vice-president of Business Development at Dubord & Rainville, a foodservice distributor based in Montreal that began servicing Copper Branch locations three and a half years ago. “It has a real passion for people to have a plant-based lifestyle and everyone who works there wants to be a part of its story. That belief in the concept is so meaningful to their success.”

Indeed, Pekeles counts herself among the converts. She’s been eating better since her family business entered into a professional relationship with Copper Branch and she’s deeply committed to sourcing the ingredients the restaurant needs to see its vision through. Its shitake mushrooms, she says, were a first for Dubord & Rainville. So is the organic kamut bread that wraps Copper Branch’s burgers and sandwiches, along with the beet-and-black-bean burgers and 100-plus other items exclusive to its offerings. “We’ve taken a leap of faith with them to get unique products we wouldn’t be getting for other clients.”

The evolution of Copper Branch aligns with the evolution of the man at its helm. The story of Infantino’s personal transformation serves as both a reflection and an instigator of the larger piece. At one point, he owned 15 Subway units, having moved from McDonald’s to take on one of Montreal’s first Subway locations in the mid-1990s, when it was still a new concept. But his son Andrew Infantino, Copper Branch’s Marketing director, remembers his father during this period as “pretty obese, pretty stressed.” Then about a decade ago, Rio lost close to 150 pounds and became a strong advocate for physical activity and plant-based diets.

When he first hit on the Copper Branch idea, the elder Infantino wasn’t looking to launch a vegan chain, just a healthy one. It was after he’d undertaken a study of food trends and identified what he called “the restaurant of the future” that he committed to an all plant-based concept. And this one, says Andrew, would be the real deal. “He saw a lot of existing restaurant chains weren’t being authentic and a lot of the options they proposed as healthy weren’t truly healthy,” he says.

From the first Copper Branch in downtown Montreal, the idea was to create a chain around the plant-based concept, to capitalize on economies of scale and mark its appearance on the scene with a bang. The second store opened a few months after the first and, to follow, another Copper Branch has opened every five or six months. The locations average 1,500 sq. ft. with 30 to 40 seats. There are also mall kiosks and food-court locations that average 700 sq. ft.

The restaurant was well received, says Andrew, and as much for what it isn’t as what it is. Its aesthetics and design don’t give off that traditional hippy vibe so often tied to good-for-you food — an intentional choice. Copper Branch’s founder wanted a restaurant that felt more like a traditional fast-casual eatery, not something that screamed “We’re vegan.” To this day, its marketing steers clear of the term “vegan,” opting for the less niche (and sometimes less politically charged) “plant-based.” “Our audience is anyone who wants to live a better life,” clarifies Rio. “Ninety per cent of the people out there are potential customers for us.”

Such tremendous demand notwithstanding, franchising has proven a sincere challenge to the restaurant’s evolution, Andrew admits, and the company has had to pivot from a few franchisee and location missteps. “It’s all part of growth,” he shrugs. Ensuring more of same, he believes, will feature an upped focus on digital and social media and partnerships with vegan influencers, including Bianca Andreescu, the young Canadian tennis great who recently won the U.S. Open. The commercial spot the restaurant ran on TSN during the match produced “tremendous digital activity and growth,” Andrew enthuses. Copper Branch will increase its exposure with the athlete through future campaigns, including transit advertising and radio.

“The food at Copper Branch is fantastic,” says Robert Carter, industry advisor, Foodservice, NPD Group. “I’ve had friends visit [from other countries] and say its food is better than the traditional dishes in their home country.”

The global cuisine piece is important at Copper Branch, another layer of differentiation for the vegan fare. “Power Bowls” are Mediterran, Aztec and Asian Fusion. “Having a variety of different flavours [means] people can be tantalized by different tastes from around the world, makes us more exciting,” says Rio. Besides, he says, consumers are more up for trying bold flavour profiles than ever. “You’re experiencing a country or a region when you come to Copper Branch. Depending on what you choose, you can travel thousands of miles with a visit to one of our restaurants.”

Not surprisingly, this plant-based chain has environmental ethics at its core. Notably, it’s linked its loyalty program with Rainforest Trust, an American operation that purchases threatened rainforests and saves endangered wildlife. In the year and a half since its partnership began, Copper Branch’s donations have protected close to 5,000 acres of land.

The restaurant is also looking at more compostable-packaging options and working with suppliers to make sure distribution is kept to a minimum. Additionally, through its Mission product line (including organic kombuchas and natural and sparkling waters), Copper Branch donates a portion of every purchase to One Tree Planted — an organization that plants trees across North America.

But, of course, Copper Branch’s biggest differentiator is the 100-per-cent vegan content of its menu. That means dishes that not only eschew meat, but every whiff of animal product, including eggs and dairy. It’s a trend with a bullet. According to research from Dalhousie University, there are 2.3-million vegetarians in Canada, up 255 per cent from 15 years ago. Another 850,000 people consider themselves vegan. That adds up to 9.4 per cent of the Canadian population that’s either vegan or vegetarian. In the U.S., fully a quarter of 25-to-34-year-olds make that claim and, according to Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, the majority of Canadian vegetarians and vegans are under the age of 35. That means vegetarians’ ranks will likely only increase. And the recent revision to Canada’s Food Guide — which advocates for eating less meat and dairy and more fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins — is widely expected to give Canadian vegetarianism and veganism a boost.

No wonder the business of providing vegan meals is booming. In the U.S., The Economist reported sales of vegan foods, as of June 2018, rose 10 times faster than food sales as a whole. Sales of Beyond Meat — which has captured a wide audience for its meat-substitute patties and sausages made from ingredients such as pea protein, coconut and canola oil — have been on a wild ascent since it began selling its flagship Beyond Burger in 2016. In some parts of the world, McDonald’s has started selling McVegan burgers, though not yet in North America, where a Change.org petition asking the fast-food icon to add a meatless option has garnered over 230,000 signatures. In late September, McDonald’s unveiled its plant-based PLT sandwich — a pilot partnership with Beyond Meat — in 28 locations in southwestern Ontario.

“The vegetarian trend has been percolating for a number of years but didn’t explode until recently,” says Carter. Part of what’s held plant-based foods back, he says, has been the taste. But he believes that’s changing, particularly as this cuisine marries itself with ethnic cuisine — a lot of which skews toward veganism and has been a steadily growing category in Canada for a decade.

But it’s the third piece of the charmed trio of veganism, global flavours and a fast-casual format — at whose intersection Copper Branch prominently sits — that’s the real trick.

“At the end of the day, convenience trumps everything,” Carter says. It’s natural that a demand for good-tasting vegan options would bleed into a quick-service environment, he says, especially with A&W’s exploding Beyond Meat burgers proving the concept. The quick-service category in Canada is more than $30 billion in annual sales and it’s dominated by burgers, coffee/doughnut and sandwich players. That leaves a lot of room for vegan quick-service to grow, says Carter, who predicts this sub-category will steal market share from the segment’s more traditional players.

“Vegan quick-service is tiny in terms of market share right now. But given the size of the opportunity, there’s nowhere to go but up.”

Written by Laura Pratt