Back in 2010, Matthew de Gruyter decided to give clean eating a try. An avid athlete, he was in great shape, but his family's history of heart disease haunted him. He lost his mother at 56, his uncle at 44. His grandfather had several open-heart surgeries. "I decided I didn't want to leave the planet early," he says. So he went vegan for 30 days, figuring if he didn't feel better afterward, he'd just move on. "Within two weeks I was sold. My focus got better, my energy went up. I felt better. I was already pretty lean but I trimmed up even more."
And the more he learned about plant-based eating, the more he realized its positive impact on the environment. "It's so much better for the planet," he says. "A pound of red meat takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce. I used to eat about seven pounds of meat a week, so that means I was going through a swimming pool's worth of water on a weekly basis."
That's when he and his wife decided to open Next Level Burger and bring plant-based foods to the masses using a format everyone's familiar with: the good old-fashioned burger joint. "We're reinventing fast food," he says. "We've taken the classic American burger stand and made it 100 percent plant-based, dairy-free, non-GMO. And we use 100 percent organic produce. It's a healthy alternative for everyone, whether you're in a progressive city like Portland, or somewhere like Dallas, Texas."
Nine months ago he opened the first Next Level Burger in Bend, and he's already making inroads in Portland. This week he signed a lease to take over the Pita Pit location at 4121 SE Hawthorne. They're just the first two of what he says will be many outlets across the country. "We have a pretty aggressive plan to double our locations each year. We have a strong vision for Next Level Burgers to be in many cities across the country."
He's shooting to have the Portland location open by mid- to late-July. "It's going to have the same DNA as our current space: vibrant colors, clean but fun environment, and as many sustainable resources as possible. Even our trays are made out of sustainably sourced bamboo."
The menu offers a range of options, from soy-based patties that replicate meat, to soy-free and wheat-free options built on vegetables. Plus there are vegan hot dogs, sandwiches, salads, fries, soy milk shakes, cane-sweetened sodas and cold-pressed juices. On tap there are craft beers from producers like Hopworks, cider from Atlas, and kombucha from Humm.
"We just want to make it easier for people to eat healthfully," says de Gruyter. "Some of our biggest fans are omnivores. They dig the food and feel great afterward. They feel energized. That's what food's supposed to do for us."