Mr. Charlie’s: The Vegan Fast Food Joint that Looks Familiar But is Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 04/24/2023 | 6 Minute Read
One Frowny Meal coming right up!
Meet Mr. Charlie’s, a vegan fast-food chain that started in Los Angeles and has since opened up another location in San Francisco. The process is simple. Step one: order something delicious from their menu, like a Not a Chicken Sandwich or a BigChuck (a double Impossible Burger with a special sauce). Step two: feel like a kid again.
Vegan options have soared in popularity in recent years, both in grocery stores and restaurants. It’s a dietary choice many have turned to for countless reasons, including environmental, health, and animal welfare-related. As of 2020, the number of Americans eating a plant-based diet exceeds 9.7 million. Not only that, we reported for the 2023 Trend Report how imitation meat is having a moment, and there are heaps of options out there, ranging from ones with unique ingredients and flavors to others meant to be as much like the real thing as possible. The two which could fool even the most meat-loving meat eater, Beyond Meat and the brand Mr. Charlie’s uses, Impossible Foods, means no one can complain if they’re looking for meat-like plant-based choices.
But to call Mr. Charlie’s a vegan restaurant doesn’t quite hit the mark. Co-founded by Taylor McKinnon, Aaron Haxton, and the brand’s namesake, Charlie Kim, Mr. Charlie’s isn’t so much a plant-based fast food joint as it's a social enterprise that just so happens to sell vegan fast food. While Taylor and Aaron admit the food is delicious, they were more fired up about the brand’s ethos and business practices.
“Both of us have been involved in a lot of businesses before this, and everybody's always concerned with the bottom line of how to make money,” Aaron said. “That's always the number one thing in all these business conversations, so Taylor and I looked at each other and said, ‘What if we focus on the things that we care about? And fuck everything else. “We don't need to fit into this mold of a big business idea. We can say, ‘These are important things, and how can we channel these thoughts and ideas into something and have a fun time doing it along the way with each other?’”
“I think somebody needed to step up and be the example that there was more opportunity and more ways to really do life, especially in business,” Taylor added. “For us, it’s about leaving the world better than we found it. Mr. Charlie’s is an example of breaking through the social barriers, creating a little bit of controversy, making it fun, and giving people an opportunity to see that the impossible can happen.”
The brand doesn’t exactly follow industry standards or best practices for financial success, but that’s part of its charm. It’s fun, irreverent, and operates with a values-first attitude—something most fast-food restaurants would never entertain.
For instance, Mr. Charlie’s team believes in hiring employees who might otherwise get overlooked in the hiring process—people who have struggled with being houseless, dealt with addiction, or were incarcerated. Partnering with Dream Center allows Mr. Charlie’s to hire individuals ready for a second chance at life. Taylor himself was unhoused and struggled eight years ago, so he knows just how meaningful it is to have someone lend a helping hand in a time of need. In turn, Mr. Charlie’s can do that for the community.
And you might be wondering why the branding and packaging look eerily similar to a specific fast food restaurant with golden arches. Mr. Charlie’s flaunts a familiar fire engine red and canary yellow, and in a twist of irony, frowny faces show up everywhere your brain is used to seeing a smile. There’s even a clown motif on their homepage. It has Marilyn Monroe’s face, but still—you get the reference, right?
Oh, you mean that place? No, never heard of it?
Taylor and Aaron denied knowing anything about the chain in question—which also just so happens to have a location across the street from the San Francisco Mr. Charlie’s shop.
Taylor insists they found inspiration in the big top.
“We love the circus so much,” Taylor said. “We’re big fans of the circus, with the red and yellow vibe, that fun, youthful, and childlike kind of connection. The world is a little bit of a circus anyway, but for us, it was about being bold and loud and connecting people to their inner child. For me and Aaron and Charlie, when we were kids, a lot of what we're dealing with today wasn't here. It gives me a lot of peace to meditate and look back on what it feels like to be a child. So then I said, ‘Well, what if we created an opportunity for everybody to find that joy?’”
Whether or not you actually believe where they sourced inspiration, the team’s focus on fun is sincere—and there’s no denying that the brand feels playful and bright. For a company that openly admits they’re “tackling serious issues, with a not-so-serious approach” and who call themselves “sarcastic disruptors,” there is a certain satisfaction in seeing them take everything a well-known, golden-arched restaurant does and flipping it on its head (coincidentally, of course). Prioritizing people over profit? Focusing on plant-based offerings? Mr. Charlie’s doesn’t care how it’s been done before—that is how they want to impact the world.
Aside from offering all plant-based options on their menu, Taylor credited Aaron for working tirelessly to make the packaging as sustainable as possible. Save for a particular sauce packet, Aaron said the restaurant is plastic-free, and packaging gets sourced locally to reduce emissions.
“We could have made all of our packaging internationally and saved a fortune,” Taylor said. “But we don't. We make it all domestic to create jobs, build infrastructure, and make sure that we can keep consistent with the quality. Our paper comes from sustainable forests, and we use soy ink to print everything. Why? Because that's the right way to do it. Is it more expensive? Yes. But is it better for The Mother? Yeah.
“We get to live on this land and breathe this air and experience trees and the moon and sunlight and each other," Taylor explained. "You've got to be giving it back, and you've got to be supporting it. You can't take, take, and take because look at what happens when you do that.”
Mr. Charlie’s only opened their first location in February 2022, barely a year ago at the time of this piece’s publication, and it can seem like they’ve been an instant hit. They partially have social media to thank (when Lizzo’s drooling over some burgers, it’s impossible not to be influenced). But the team has also put a lot of hard work—and heart—into making something that customers can connect to.
“A lot of people look at Mr. Charlie’s and go, ‘This was an overnight success,’” said Aaron. “And it was, on the one hand, but it took many, many years of fucking up to get to the point where we could create something that was an overnight success. We've made all the mistakes. And luckily, with Mr. Charlie's, we've been able to make fewer because of our experience in the past.
"But failure isn’t failure," added Aaron. "It's just part of the process. And you don’t fail until you give up.”