Comedian Kevin Hart Recruits Chef Salem To Anchor Hart House Menu Strategy
Q&A with Chef Mike Salem, VP-Culinary, Hart House, Los Angeles, CA
Hart House is a new industry changing quick service restaurant founded by comedian Kevin Hart. The 100% plant based fast food concept offers a delicious menu free of cholesterol, antibiotics, hormones, artificial colors, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, or trans fats.
Leading this innovative new restaurant as its Head of Culinary Innovation, is Mike Salem, a chef that was hand selected for his successful involvement with the launch of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. Salem won the coveted “Menu Masters” award for one the most successful product introductions and is a global pioneer in the plant-based world.
You will find traditional fast-food options at Hart House with their carefully crafted menu such has crispy chicken sandwiches, nuggets, tots, and shakes with one big difference: the entire menu is plant based. With that in mind, Total Food Service sought out Chef Salem to get his take on the recipe that will enable the iconic comedian Hart to turn his first entry into the restaurant industry a success.
What led to your interest in the restaurant business, what got you involved in cooking and all things restaurants?
It’s just a part of my DNA, I just can’t explain it. Grew up just loving to cook and that turned into my first job in the summer being a dishwasher at 15 or 16 years old. I started absorbing and learning and I had the good fortune to have some great chef mentors early in my career in Miami like Chef Norman Van Aken among others. I was able to grow it into a really fun career and I just love food and people.
Talk a little bit about some of the stops along the way from Miami to how this whole Hart House thing has come about.
I had the good fortune after culinary school to go out for my first corporate restaurant support gig which was with a company called Hometown Buffet out in Southern California and made some career moves overtime ended up going over to Buffet’s Inc. in Minneapolis. Then Atlanta with Cinnabon and Seattle’s best coffee leading their culinary innovation for them. Then a bunch of stops along the way from Del Taco back on the West Coast, Outback Steakhouse, the dine equity in Applebee’s, Papa Murphys pizza, and then most recently the last five years with Burger King at the head of culinary innovations and commercialization. That’s where I was recruited from to come over here.
When you first were approached for this, what attracted you to this opportunity?
At Burger King about three or four years ago, we had a phenomenal product launch with the Impossible Whopper. We were really the first restaurant chain of scale to launch plant based and I was very fortunate that I won a “Menu Master” award. It was a really great moment for the brand and for plant-based. The more I learned about it and the more I studied what we had done, the more convinced I was that there were opportunities to continue to explore plant-based at Burger King or in major QSR’s.
For some reason there has always been an assumption that there is a certain demographic involved with plant based, a sophisticated, educated, buyer/consumer. You did something amazing, you proved that plant-based is for everybody. Can you talk a little bit about that and were you surprised at the results?
A little. It’s definitely one of the more unique product launches in the sense that nobody really knew there wasn’t something that you could point to that incrementally this will do XY and Z. So I took a little bit of a leap of faith in order to get there. What I learned at Burger King is that people are going to be driven by the same fundamentals that make any great restaurant, friendly service affordable pricing, and a great product.
With the Kevin Hart team, what were the marching orders?
This all started with Kevin’s vision and Kevin had this idea to create Hart House and make it an accessible alternative for the masses within the fast-food space. Kevin has a very incredible strategic framework for what he wants to accomplish with his brand, and he has created an incredible culture for us to go into that.
What’s within that incredible culture? Is it the ability to create whatever is on the menu you want to build?
We have really embraced this idea that we can be the employer of choice within the restaurant space. Which means paying a fair living wage. We’re not going to overwork you and put you in a position where we compromise your lifestyle. We have an incredible progressive 401(k) program and rainy day funds to give some solace for employees to allow them to focus on the fundamentals and really be able to take care of our guests, prepare great food, and not worry about financial crisis in their lives.
When did you start on the project and how much time did you have before the LA unit opened? How has the menu evolved?
It started back in late November of last year 2021, so probably had about six or seven months to really carry this menu. Now we are at a stage where we are starting to read actual mixed reports, get a handle on theoretical versus actual menu performance, and that will then yield the number of different work streams to continue to optimize. Once we get the sales we will just continue to optimize the menu and continue to listen to our guests. I don’t see us going crazy with a lot of menu expansion, I want to keep this simple but we’re gonna keep it special.
As you look at growing, you’ll have months’ worth of feedback from your customer base. What has been the response?
We have heard really great things, excellent Yelp reviews. Just listening to the guest, take our time being patient, and making those changes that need to happen to optimize the menu.
Are you using existing product that somebody is making or are you creating your own product?
We did create our own product. We looked at every plant-based provider that was out there across every analog chicken and beef. We looked at Impossible and Beyond and we felt like their product quality was good but not great. We also felt like their brand recognition was great and we would be paying for a lot of that. Why do you need brand recognition when you have Kevin Hart as your partner? That allowed us to go back and create analog that are best in class.
Is Kevin a vegan or is he a flexitarian?
Kevin is a flexitarian. After he had his accident, he got very serious about his health and that allowed him to think about different ways in and at one of them was a plant-based diet.
It was inspiring to hear an interview where Kevin described how he would listen to a customer’s needs when he worked in a shoe store, and then find the right solution. It was amazing regardless of who it was, but we’re curious what’s going on in terms of listening to what customers are saying. Do they tell you that they want fries cut a certain way? Do they tell you that they want a certain flavor profile?
You know what, they do. The thing is that they tell you every day and I think where a lot of restaurants go wrong is they don’t like to listen. Sometimes, shops and great restaurateurs can get so caught up in their brand and in their product that they don’t see the forest through the trees and sometimes they almost resent the guest, or they allow cost to come between the experience and the guest.
Do you see a day where plant-based foods become their own, with their own textures and their own flavors in place of everything being a replacement of something that we are already eating?
I think that is a very good provocation. The answer is I don’t know. Frankly, I think you’ll continue to see plant-based proliferate and I think you’ll continue to see these analogues targeted towards real animal protein. For one, the biggest draw is the novelty of the mimicking of real animal proteins that can get the “non-vegan” or the “carnivore” excited to go try it and to make it a part of their lifestyle.
How do you create product like this that is so unique and then flow it through a traditional distribution channel?
It’s not difficult. It’s like any other restaurant start up as long as you’re disciplined about what you were doing, and you understand what you can and cannot do based on your volume. You need to have enough financial backing in order to make decisions that are in the best interest of the long-term health of the brand versus the short term win.
Since you put the time into building these products, do you see these products becoming retail products as well?
Yes absolutely. That’ll be another work-stream for us down the road, but you could definitely see this brand expanding into CPG, into even school lunch programs one day.
Will the growth come from company owned stores or will the growth come from franchise stores?
I think right now our goal is to remain company owned as we continue to cultivate and fine-tune this concept and then in time franchise.
Any opportunity for somebody that wants to become part of the Hart House team around the country?
Yes, reach out to us on our website at www.myharthouse.com. We are always looking for the best-in-class operators and hourly employees to join our family.
From a pricing standpoint, is there a pressure to be in competition with traditional fast food chain restaurants like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, or is this more of a Shake Shack type place where people should expect that they’re gonna pay a premium for the best in class in the marketplace?
We are trying to give you the best in class in the marketplace at a reasonable price so we do try to target more Burger King main stream QSR pricing. We just try to position ourselves as mainstream QSR fast food with the added benefit of it being plant based, free of any cholesterol, and little bit better for you than mainstream QSR.
To learn more about Hart House, visit the website
The post Comedian Kevin Hart Recruits Chef Salem To Anchor Hart House Menu Strategy appeared first on Total Food Service.