Nearly a decade before CEO Rio Infantino launched his expanding plant-based food empire Copper Branch, he took a serious look at his own health.
The Montrealer had entered the restaurant industry “by chance,” in the mid-1980s. As a teenager looking for his first job, he opened the Yellow Pages and got hired at the first place he fell upon, upscale Italian eatery Angelo Il Cacciatore on Crescent St.
He worked his way up from dishwasher to waiter over the next four years, while studying psychology at Concordia.
Thus began Infantino’s long journey through the food industry. He worked at various high-end restaurants before opening businesses of his own: two dry cleaning stores and a janitorial company — “but I didn’t feel it was for me.”
It was during a stint at McDonald’s, working at the corporate level, that he had his first epiphany.
“I put on a ton of weight,” Infantino recounted. “I would even say the food was addictive. That’s when I started to experience food addiction. I put on 80 pounds. I was eating refined bread and fries on a daily basis. I had no clue.”
After topping out at 300 pounds, Infantino started to read up on nutrition. He was among the first people to open a Subway franchise in Quebec, in the early ’90s, thinking the company provided a healthier alternative.
He would open 16 Subway locations over the next two decades, but despite their success he was left wanting more.
“I got tired,” Infantino said. “I felt it wasn’t authentic. People were looking for something more: real food with organic ingredients, not transformed. At the same time, I wanted to remove the meat; I didn’t feel it was necessary.
“I wanted to reach the reducetarians and flexitarians who wanted to incorporate more plants into their diets. That’s what I was as well. I wasn’t into it for the ethics, I was into it for my health.”
Infantino was on the road a lot, with Subway, and noticed he couldn’t find a lot of nutritious options for a quick meal. He got to thinking, and in 2014 opened the first Copper Branch restaurant on Bishop St.
He didn’t leave his fast-food chain experience completely behind. Within two and-a-half years, there were eight Copper Branch locations around Quebec. Since 2016, another 46 franchises have opened worldwide.
“We’re opening in Vancouver very shortly,” Infantino said. “Next week we’re opening one in the Maritimes. We already have restaurants in every other province. Florida and New York are opening soon. We have California, Maine, four in France and one in Belgium.”
Infantino expects to have 90 Copper Branch locations in operation by the end of the year. The 10-year-plan is for 2000 locations by 2029.
“Forbes called us the largest plant-based restaurant chain in the world,” he said.
Not bad for a guy who was just trying to offer people a decent meal.
Yet while he has aggressively capitalist aspirations, Infantino doesn’t just talk the talk on health. The ingredients on Copper Branch’s menu are 55-60% organic, he noted, and there are no fried items on the menu.
“It was a conscious decision from the beginning. We strictly believe that frying is bad. It creates carcinogens. Sure, it tastes great and gives a nice texture. But we use a combi oven, which uses steam to heat the air and bake everything.”
Among Copper Branch’s go-to items are an array of vegetable bowls on a bed of organic brown rice, quinoa, zero-calorie konjac noodles or lettuce; veggie burgers; soups; sandwiches; power smoothies; its own Mission brand kombucha; and a baked, vegan poutine using potato cubes, mushroom gravy and Daiya cheese substitute.
In other words, there seems to be a genuine intent to provide patrons with a healthy meal in a short time frame. But there’s always room for improvement. Although until now people have had to order and pick up their food at the counter, Copper Branch will soon begin offering table service — but Infantino is quick to explain that customers will still get their food within 10 minutes.
“Initially, (Copper Branch) was created to be more of a fast food thing,” he said, “but we want to tone that down and let people relax.”
Among the new and upcoming menu items are a faux-crab cake burger, currently available; and a New York-style vegan cheesecake, which will be on the menu in a couple of weeks.
The company also donates one per cent of the funds from all loyalty card orders and online orders to conservation agency Rainforest Trust.
“We want it to be something inspiring,” Infantino said of the Copper Branch experience, “where people can go and feel good about what they’re eating.”