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The Burger That Instagram Built

“Every collaboration we’ve done has come from one of us having that person’s phone number — they’re a friend,” said Lexie Jiaras, 28, a founder of Monty’s, of the high-profile people who have helped create a subculture around the plant-based burger chain. “Someone comes into the store that’s a friend of ours, who’s a creative, and who we think would be a good fit.”

The majority of people who have contributed to success of Monty’s, which sells plant-based burgers, chicken, fries, tater tots and shakes at six locations in Los Angeles, are not famous. They are families, fans leaving Dodger games, tourists, vegans and those who may eat an entire double cheeseburger and never know it isn’t meat.

The approach to getting them in the door, however, has borrowed from music industry tactics rather than conventional food-industry wisdom. Three of the working founders — Nic Adler, Bill Fold and Ms. Jiaras — have connections to Goldenvoice, the concert and festival conglomerate that operates Coachella.

Mr. Fold is the Goldenvoice festival producer; Mr. Adler, its former culinary director (he also owns Sunset Boulevard’s Roxy Theater); and Ms. Jiaras is a creative consultant for Coachella who advises on marketing, merchandise, sponsorship and more.

The three friends have built a successful, self-funded vegan burger chain during a period in which restaurants have been imperiled, almost by accident. “Transparently, Bill and I just missed In-N-Out Burger,” said Ms. Jiaras, who has been in a relationship with Mr. Fold for seven years (both are vegans). “The only burger options felt fancy — a sit-down place with a white tablecloth, where you pay upwards of $30 for this fluffy bun burger. We just wanted to smash our hands on a burger, eat some fries, and dip them in a shake.”

In 2018, the couple started developing a concept for a vegan In-N-Out in Mr. Fold’s hometown, Riverside, Calif. They asked Mr. Adler, a friend and the owner of Nic’s on Beverly, to help with recipe development using Impossible Meat — a soy and potato protein ground beef replacement that had recently come on the market. Ms. Jiaras’s friend drew a photo of her rescue schnoodle, Monty, eating a burger, and the image became the brand’s logo and namesake.

“We were playful, because we weren’t really focused on profit,” she said. The group planned to open Monty’s in a location in the Riverside Food Lab, and when construction was delayed, they plugged their new business into the circuit they knew best: festivals.

“We did Camp Flog Gnaw, Coachella, Stagecoach, all those fun places — so you could only get Monty’s at a really cool place for the entire summer of 2018,” Ms. Jiaras said. The festivals proved ideal for developing their menu. “You get real-time feedback from people,” Mr. Adler said. “You can see it on their faces.”

When the Riverside location and another branch in Koreatown opened at the end of 2018, insights from the music industry continued to shape strategy. “We use the word ‘anti-marketing’ a lot — and I think you see that more in the music world, of not going the traditional route,” Mr. Adler, 49, said. “We’re more the street team that’s getting out on the corner, passing out a cool flyer.” (Monty’s estimates it has given out a million stickers.)

“We’ve treated Monty’s almost the way you would treat a young band that you found at a 300-person club that was selling out,” he said. “We didn’t put a lot of focus into trying to get the culinary world to love Monty’s. Our goal was to get musicians, skaters, people in fashion and dog lovers to love Monty’s.”

When Ms. Jiaras described the opening of the Koreatown location, it sounded more like a thumping nightclub. “There was a huge line to get in, Nic was working the door, I was making shakes, there were long days,” she said. “It felt like we were working a show.”

The founders also credit a vegan community that, as Ms. Jiaras put it, “goes hard for a new restaurant,” and has only recently had compelling alternatives to beloved mainstream cuisine, including options that aren’t billed as puritanical, or even healthy. Mr. Adler, who has been vegan for 25 years, has spent much of his career cultivating a community through Nic’s, and the Eat Drink Vegan Festival. “I helped bring influencers into the plant-based scene,” he said.

“Over time, Monty’s has transitioned from only a place that vegans go to a place that everyone goes, and now probably more non-vegans than vegans,” Mr. Adler said. That crossover appeal has grown thanks to appetizing innovations like Impossible and Beyond Meat.

Their concept comes at a time when consumers — particularly Gen Z — are increasingly interested in plant-based food. The Good Food Institute, a global nonprofit that works to accelerate alternative protein innovation, has reported that sales of plant-based food grew almost twice as much as animal-based foods in 2020, with plant-based meat cited as the fastest growing category behind milk and dairy alternatives.

“Monty’s has really taken this concept and inspired people through branding and great food,” said Taylor McKinnon, a founder of Mr. Charlie’s, a recent headline-grabbing addition to the plant-based fast food landscape in Los Angeles. “They gave people a reason to think about being plant based. If there was no Monty’s, I don’t know if Mr. Charlie’s would exist.”

Mr. Charlie’s joins a growing field of fast-casual vegan burger chains in Southern California, but so far, only Monty’s has a stream of public support from celebrities (that may change, as Kevin Hart and Leonardo DiCaprio recently announced investments in plant-based burger chains). Many high-profile fans, like Finneas, Travis Barker and Vince Staples, do custom shake collaborations, with $1 from each donated to an animal charity. (Mr. Barker, a longtime friend of Mr. Fold’s, was given a percentage of the company at its inception.) Some stars also develop custom merchandise with Monty’s.

“Merchandise has always been important to me as an individual,” Ms. Jiaras said. “It was important for people to have something to take home that would represent a good feeling they had at Monty’s and would become part of their life.” By volume, Monty’s sells more burgers and shakes than merchandise (about 1,200 burgers daily across all locations), but it rakes in more revenue from clothing, the company said.

The team pays close attention to fashion trends. “It seems like hearts and light baby colors have been really big in the past year, so we wanted to incorporate them into everything,” Ms. Jiaras said of a recent drop. “And when we saw the rise in vintage Harley Davidson tees, we wanted to do something with lightning bolts.”

Monty’s does little in the way of traditional marketing, though it did put up 15 billboards in Los Angeles in the past year. But the founders — who are all Disneyland acolytes, and have modeled their customer experience after the theme park, including a birthday pin — say they grapple with the brand outpacing the food. They tried to put a pristine photo of the burger on the billboard, but they felt like it got lost. They replaced it with a photo of Monty.

“We’ve eventually come to see Monty’s as a platform,” said Ms. Jiaras, who has a large following on TikTok, where she regularly reviews fashion and weighs in on zeitgeisty news. For a chain that has been nurtured on social media, visuals are paramount, and Ms. Jiaras and Mr. Adler are constantly analyzing how the brand is tagged.

Early on, Instagram was how they knew they were onto something. “We had some idea that we were going to be somewhat successful when we saw suitcases come into Monty’s,” recalled Mr. Adler, of the place becoming a bucket-list stop in Los Angeles.

Shortly afterward, there was the “Instagram photo dump,” he said, referring to the trend of posting a slide show of quotidian images, from the manicured to the mundane. “We started to see photos of the Santa Monica Pier, Disneyland — and Monty’s,” he said.

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