top of page

NBSV 159


Transcript of the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, episode 159

Next Level Burger CEO Matt de Gruyter on founding America’s first plant-based burger joint

Karina Inkster: You're listening to the No Bullshit Vegan Podcast, episode 159. Co-founder and CEO of Next Level Burger, Matt de Gruyter, joins me to discuss his vegan and business origin stories, how Next Level Burger's vegan offerings are displacing meat consumption and positively affecting the environment, and more.

Hey, welcome to the show. I’m Karina, your go-to no BS vegan fitness and nutrition coach. In case you haven't yet downloaded the No Bullshit Vegan ebook I put together a few months ago to celebrate the fifth anniversary of this show, you can get your hands on it at It's completely free and it includes advice from yours truly on fueling strength training with plants, as well as insight from four experts featured on the podcast over the years, including Robert Cheeke, one of the founders of Vegan Bodybuilding. Head to to get yours now.

Introducing today's guest, Matt de Gruyter. Matt is the co-founder and CEO of Next Level Burger, America's first 100% plant-based burger joint that serves up vegan burgers for a better world in 10 locations coast to coast. Since its start in 2014, Next Level Burger has become a plant-based phenomenon. Matt and his wife and co-founder Cierra de Gruyter lead the large-scale national expansion of the brand, adding more cities and more stores every year without losing sight of their passion for serving healthy, sustainably sourced food that drives their commitment to nourishing the people and nurturing the planet. Matt's favourite meal is Next Level Burger's, quinoa and mushroom signature burger. Here's our conversation.

Hey Matt, nice to meet you. Thanks for coming on the show today.

Matt de Gruyter: Karina, it is an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Karina Inkster: I'm excited to get to know about Next Level Burger and your story and just have a conversation and see where it goes. I am unfortunately not in a country that has NLB, so let's start with what it is. Tell me about the business and then I want to hear about the story about you starting it and getting into it and all that. But what is Next Level Burger slash NLB? What's the deal?

Matt de Gruyter: I have a lot of family up in Canada. My grandmother actually is Canadian. My father a dual citizen of both the US, Canada, and Columbia. So we do need to remedy the fact there is no Next Level Burger in Canada, so I'll let you know.

Karina Inkster: Yeah.

Matt de Gruyter: But we are-

Karina Inkster: A hundred percent.

Matt de Gruyter: And that's well said, because we are America's first 100% plant-based burger joint chain. So we are obviously vegan, but also we take it to the next level with a commitment to organic produce, to non-GMO across the board, and to living wages. So it is a combination of values that really came out of, my wife and I, Cierra is her name, our chief visionary officer and Next Level Burger's co-founder, this awakening that maybe the way that we lived our lives before, maybe the way that we fueled our bodies wasn't the best way. And going back a little bit here in time, in 2010 there was an event that occurred that had it not, Next Level Burger probably wouldn't exist.

Karina Inkster: Interesting.

Matt de Gruyter: It's 2010, I'm 27 years old. Had joined the Marine Corps out of high school, and when I got out of the Marine Corps, I'd used my GI bill to go to college and I had planned to go to law school from Denver. So University of Denver was where I was going to go. And yet about 10 years ahead of schedule, my wife and I found out that... She was heading off to graduate school and I was heading off to law school and we had just bought a one-bedroom loft - that we were going to have our son about 10 years ahead of schedule.

Karina Inkster: All righty then.

Matt de Gruyter: Yes, yes. And alrighty then exactly. It was like, all righty then. So how are we going to back up and basically approach these major life decisions of me going off to law school and her going to graduate school? And so at the time I was bartending at an upscale steakhouse. Lots of steak, lots of wine and a higher-end clientele. And I was realizing that I probably needed to reconsider what had become a several-year dream of mine to become a lawyer, because we were going to have a kiddo and I needed to get to work. And so at this time, I had some regulars of ours and I didn't know what they did. They had $2,000 shoes and fancy suits.

And on this particular day, as this crossroads moment was sort of crystallizing for me on what I was going to do to help provide for this kid about to come into the world, they handed me a business card. They said, "We think you'd be good at what we do. Why don't you come in for an interview?" And little did I know that I had been serving beer and wine and booze to these venture capital guys for the last year or two and had no idea what they did. So I walked in, found out it was oil and gas venture capital. Guess what my dad did for 35 years? Oil and gas industry all the way. So 35 years of geophysicist. My uncle was a geologist. I never expressed any interest in the oil and gas business because of course, Karina, if your mom or dad does something, usually you're not just uninterested in it, but you look to go the opposite direction, right?

Karina Inkster: Exactly.

Matt de Gruyter: And so here I am walking out of this interview and I called my dad and I let him know it's oil and gas, and he laughed for a year or two, I think, at the irony of that. And so I cut my teeth in the industry and ended up in a position where I got a job offer down to Dallas from Denver in private equity, made my first million by the time I was 30. But along the way, coming back around to 2010 in this catalyst moment, I lost my mom. 2010, 10 years after she was declared free of breast cancer, we found out it was back. We found out that it had metastasized throughout her entire upper torso. And less than two weeks after we found out that there was something wrong, we lost her.

Karina Inkster: Wow.

Matt de Gruyter: And that was on June 20th of 2010. Just four days later, my little guy turned three. And I'm sitting at the dining room table in Dallas, Texas at our house, big beautiful home, and I'm staring across the table at this beautiful little guy and I'm thinking how much I don't want to miss any part of his life. And after saying goodbye to my mom, I was ripped open and raw, as you can imagine. But I didn't have any answers. I just knew I wanted a thing.

And so what my wife had been exploring for the last couple of years up to this point was initially a vegetarian diet. And Karina, I'm not kidding, when I say that I didn't know vegetarian until my wife decided to become one, I mean it. I could not tell you one single person until my wife decided in our mid-twenties that she wanted to become a vegetarian, it was a vegetarian. And at the time I said, "Honey, I love you and I'll support you, but do not try to guilt me in becoming a vegetarian because it is never, and I mean never, capital N, going to happen." Famous-

Karina Inkster: Famous last words. Oh yeah.

Matt de Gruyter: Yes. And '09, and then leading into 2010, she stumbled upon this even weirder concept, this vegan thing. Which at the time I just couldn't even conceptualize. It felt like some diet from Mars just, "All right, I get it. You don't want to eat animals, I get that. But come on, milk and cheese and eggs. What's wrong with that? You're not killing the animal to take these things." Right? Unbelievable ignorance.

But what happened when my mom passed away and I started thinking about how I wanted to be there for my son, and I had this idea of healthy to a hundred, which eventually I saw a book many years later that had a very similar title. I started picking up these books, both my wife and I are prolific readers, that talked about the health benefits and the correlation between what you eat and your health outcomes when it comes to a plant-based diet versus not. And I was floored by the clear correlations, the China Study being one of those first books that I picked up. In fact, the very first book, oddly enough, was The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone. Are you familiar with it by chance?

Karina Inkster: I haven't read it, but I know about the book. It's a classic in a lot of people's vegan journeys, actually.

Matt de Gruyter: It is. And it was the book that I was making fun of my wife for buying, because I said, "Honey, how are you going to take life and diet advice from the girl from Clueless?" Which of course was a reflection of where my head was at as a guy in his late twenties, rolled my eyes and laughed. I had this picture of, "As if. Way harsh time." That's what I thought about when I thought about Alicia's book. And yet I cracked her book open and I was completely and totally impressed. It was well-written. It was well-cited, it was beautiful. I remember thinking, "Who eats miso soup for breakfast?” as a strange way to start your day. But I realized that not only was it well done, but it was well substantiated in the bibliography. You had all these other books that, of course, my wife had already purchased, China Study being one of them. And whether it was the China Study and Caldwell Esselstyn's book, How To Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, or many others, I started realizing that my idea... And I'm talking I ate 10 pounds of red meat a week, easily, at this point in my life, Karina.

Karina Inkster: Oh man.

Matt de Gruyter: I'm talking 16 to 24-ounce Porterhouses five nights a week.

Karina Inkster: Good Lord.

Matt de Gruyter: I felt like chicken breast wasn't manly enough to make it to the dinner plate, but was a good substitute if you were in a pinch or just looking to switch things up. And so my idea of the perfect meal was this 24-ounce steak, baked potatoes, smothered in lots and lots of dairy of course, and then a big salad. I would've been a paleo guy through and through many years later. It wasn't a concept yet.

And yet I'm realizing that as I'm reading these books that I'm basically eating, with the exception of the salad, a diet that is the exact opposite of what it looks like I need to get to to get to this healthy at a hundred thing. And it was very real. Cancer and heart disease on my mom's side was just terrifyingly present. My aunt had had breast cancer, beat it. She's still alive today, thank God. My mother, again, two rounds of it. The first round she beat back and it took years. The second round, two weeks and she was gone. My grandfather, her dad had had four heart attacks, four open heart surgeries. And actually six months after my mom passed, a little bit past this point of where I was thinking about these things, but it helped seal the deal in my mind, her younger brother, who was only 48 at the time, she had been 56, he dropped dead from a widow-maker, just one day, all the sudden.

Karina Inkster: Oh, wow.

Matt de Gruyter: And so I realized that this path, based on the data, based on the science, was the path that I probably needed to take, and I didn't want to take it. But I looked at my son and I looked at the science and I said, "Okay, are you going to do what you now know you need to do?" And I know it sounds so ridiculous now, but it felt like such a daunting task. But I said, "Okay, 30 days. I'll try this plant-based thing for 30 days.” And I've said this before and it's the best way I can put it. At the time, getting through a singular meal without animal protein was something that I just didn't do. I couldn't tell you a meal that didn't involve some hunk of animal protein, because I just didn't feel full or satiated when I didn't include it. And frankly, it never even crossed my mind that I'd skip it. A bagel with cream cheese wasn't enough. It needed to have something with it.

So for 30 days, I said, all right, this feels like I'm going to be walking around on my hands for 30 days, but 30 days. When I put my mind to something, I'm usually pretty good about falling through with it. But I felt like the task was daunting. It was so daunting, Karina that I didn't even tell my wife because I didn't want her get excited. 'Cause of course, she'd been-

Karina Inkster: Of course.

Matt de Gruyter: ...pushing this vegetarian and then vegan bend for a couple years. And so I was super sneaky. But two weeks into it, I was sold. I was sleeping better. All the things you hear: feeling better, stress was rolling off my back at work. Again, very high-stress position in a tough industry that could be very lucrative, but you got to earn it. And so two weeks into it, feeling good, feeling lighter, feeling cleaner, feeling leaner and meaner, I told my wife. And of course, she was thrilled because now she was able to get on the same page with me and with our son who, on a very short aside, refused to ever eat meat. We used to worry about his protein intake because he would only eat vegetarian foods. My mom would make these from-scratch chicken dinners, blend it all in a Vitamix, bring it to our house in this grand attempt to get our son to have a singular spoonful of organic made-with-love roasted chicken. And he would put it in his mouth and spit it out. Put it in his mouth, spit it out.

Karina Inkster: Wow.

Matt de Gruyter: So he insisted way before he had any sort of ability to communicate that he was going to be a vegetarian. And so it was just this natural progress for our family. And then the next year, our daughter joined us who was vegan from before birth. And so we woke up as a family, Karina, to this crazy idea that you could eat a hundred percent plant-based diet and not just survive, but maybe you could thrive. And maybe you could help maximize the probability that you're going to live a healthier longer life.

And in 2010, that same year, my wife had this insane idea where she said, "Hey, this is great for us. Why don't we start a plant-based burger restaurant and share it with the world?" And I said, "Are you insane? The only business that is riskier than the oil and gas business is the restaurant business." And I shut it down immediately, but she kept bringing it up for three years. And in 2013, she brought it up before my umpteenth investment conference for the year. It was May of 2013. And I went on a trip where the stars aligned, and I came back from that trip and I said, "Let's look at doing this." And less than two months later, I hung it up.

And at this point, Karina, paint the picture. Cierra and I, we're living a life where we live in Southern California. I've made my first million by the time I was 30, I had a beautiful BMW M3 that I drove to Newport Beach and back every single day. We had two beautiful kids both under the age of six. And yet we both had this intense desire to do more. And for us, that vehicle became Next Level Burger. And so I quit my job and we put our house on the market and we set off to the P and W from Southern California to start what became America's first vegan burger joint. And we opened the doors on it, left my position in the final days of July, 2013. And we opened our very first Next Level Burger in July of 2014, less than a year after deciding to set out on this crazy adventure.

Karina Inkster: Wow. That is incredible. So 2010 was a pretty pivotal year, but so was 2013, this whole journey here and how it occurred. That's pretty amazing.

Matt de Gruyter: Yes. We were either insane or inspired, or some maybe a combination of the two.

Karina Inkster: It's usually a combination of both of those. Yeah.

Matt de Gruyter: Yeah. I think it kind of has to be because if you're not a little bit nuts, you're not really swinging for the fences. But if you're totally insane, good luck. 'Cause these things are very hard. 'Cause you can have a great idea, right? Great ideas-

Karina Inkster: It's a sliding scale.

Matt de Gruyter: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It's definitely a spectrum. You can have a great idea, but you have to have at least an equal measure, if not a greater measure, of ability to execute and to execute consistently. And of course, the journey just got started once we opened up our first restaurant. And now here we are, we just passed our ninth anniversary of opening our first location. We have 10 locations in the US from coast to coast in eight cities, six states, three time zones. Whole Foods Market is our largest investor, and we're set to quadruple our location count through the end of 2025 to 28 units, trying to drive as much of an impact in this world that desperately needs it for plant-based.

And again, for us, taking it to that next level of a commitment to organics, a commitment to non-GMO across the board, absolute. And a commitment to living wages, which we've been paying since we started back in 2014. I don't even think living wages was a term at that point. We just felt like you should honour people with a wage that is going to reflect the work you're looking for them to do and the way you're looking for them to do it. Smile on their face or respect them, support them. Set the expectations high, but make sure you're doing your part as the employer.

Karina Inkster: That's brilliant. I love that that's part of the business vision and it has been right from the start. That's pretty excellent.

So the next level piece is not just about the food itself and the brand itself, it's also about other humans and treating them in a way, presumably, that you would want to be treated. And that comes around. I mean, that's part of your brand. I think that's pretty excellent. So tell me about the actual food. You mentioned non-GMO a couple times. What's the deal?

Matt de Gruyter: Yeah, no, I love the golden rule reference there. It's a crazy idea. A few thousand years old at this point, of treat people the way you want to be treated. Really, that's a good segue into the question you just asked. When it comes to the food, serve to people the kind of food that you want to eat yourself. And that was really our filter for what went on the menu at Next Level Burger. Karina, it was, "Would we put this in front of our kids?" And if the answer was no, it wouldn't be on the menu. So that meant no preservatives. That meant organics across the board for produce and as often as we can possibly use in everything else. It meant making the decision to choose the more difficult path, the more expensive path, because it was the right one. And so based on our research, we can make a pretty bold claim, and that is that Next Level Burger is the most sustainable restaurant concept on the planet.

Karina Inkster: Interesting.

Matt de Gruyter: Because the quinoa in our signature burger is organic. The mushrooms that go into that patty are organic. Our American, North American-grown French fries are organic and fried in usually organic sunflower oil. That salad that you get from Soup to Nuts is organic, with the greens and the tempeh and the tomatoes and all the deliciousness that comes together to make our amazing salads.

And so what you can have confidence in when you go to Next Level, there are no higher shelf ingredients on the planet than what is in our restaurant. And that when you're feeding yourself or you're feeding your partner on date night or you're feeding your kids on a Saturday afternoon where you're running around, you can have confidence that you're eating the best of the best. And a big part of our journey on the family side was deciding that if you're going to make all sorts of investments, whether it's investments in your cell phone or your car or where your kids go to school or where you decide to live, make one of the most prioritized in health. And one of the ways that we make a decision every single day to treat ourselves either well or poorly, is how we decide to eat.

But people need help in that regard. It's not easy. We're all busy and our bandwidth is limited. So you have to make the default option easy enough. You have to make it cost-effective. You have to make it, most importantly, taste awesome. And if you can do that, well, we think at least half the time folks are going to make the right decision.

Karina Inkster: Absolutely. Well, speaking of the taste awesome part, why burgers? Is this because it's something that you feel a lot of non-vegans are going to be attracted to? It's kind of a way of bringing in folks who otherwise would go for a meat burger and now they're going for a plant-based one? How was the decision about the type of cuisine arrived at?

Matt de Gruyter: So for us, Cierra and I, again, founder and chief visionary officer and mother of my children, and the woman that's kept me somewhat sane for almost 20 years, for us, we were trying to maximize our impact. And as we reflected on, I mean, how do you get to me at 26? I wasn't interested in tofu... I mean, frankly, it took years before I even ate tofu. So you weren't going to get me with a tofu bowl as much as I eat that multiple times a week now. And you weren't going to get me with some super fancy or foo-foo dish. You are going to get me with the burger. And you can still get me with the burger. There is probably nothing, at least in the States, that is more Americana feeling than the all-American Burger joint experience. Where you have your burger and your fries dipped in ketchup and your shake that you wash it all down with.

And we decided that that was the sort of Trojan horse for, "Hey, if I can eat vegan plant-based and it tastes like this, where I'm sacrificing nothing and gaining, you could argue everything, from a personal health perspective, from a climate change perspective, why would I eat anything but?" And so for us, and of course the fact that what we built didn't exist yet... As America's first vegan burger joint, and there was an allure to that as well, what would it be like to be the first to do something like this? And so we put that all together. Let's dress up this plant-based, organic, non-GMO, good-for-you and the planet diet in the trappings of the all-American burger joint. Let's ask ourselves, what does the burger joint look like if you crafted it in the 21st century, not the first half of the 20th century?

And we’re mindful of how important from health and sustainability these things are. And boom, out came Next Level Burger, out of our kitchen in Southern California as we kicked around all sorts of good and horrible ideas for what the name would be. And I was pacing away from my wife at the kitchen table, through our galley kitchen, and I turned around and I said, "It's kind of like the next generation of the burger. It's kind of like the next level." And she looked at me as I turned around and she said, "That's good." She said, "That's good." And in that moment, Next Level Burger as the name of the brand crystallized. And here we are. As you can see, it's something I rock on my t-shirt, my hoodies, and on my heart on a daily basis.

Karina Inkster: Genius. I love that. And it applies to so many things. It works in the food department, it works in how you treat your employees, it works in what you mentioned, to combat things like climate change and the destruction of our environment. So it's pretty all-encompassing. And I think you guys nailed it. You totally nailed it. I love it.

So there's a survey that you guys did of folks who were at various locations of yours, I think it was 339 respondents. So can we talk about this? There's a couple interesting points that I want to bring up and then maybe you can talk to them a little bit. So you surveyed 339 folks who ate at various Next Level locations, and some of the findings are a bit different to what we've seen in other sectors or other areas of the plant-based arena. And one of those is 21% of these respondents who are already eating at your locations say that they would've opted for an omnivorous meal at a different restaurant or at home if Next Level wasn't an option or if they weren't there that day. So can you speak to that a little bit? Is this kind of part of what you're trying to do with your brand?

Matt de Gruyter: Yes. In a big, big capital Y-E-S sort of way. We love to feed vegans and vegetarians. My whole family, of course, subscribes to the plant-based philosophy of diet and living. But it's kind of like church. You can feel good preaching to the choir, they're going to say amen, and they're going to nod their heads and they're going to make you feel good, but are you really talking to the people that need to hear it? And so for us, what we wanted to find out, especially in this sort of trough of disillusionment where there's been this anti-woke shift to anything that even felt progressive, whether it was food or it was technology or it was politics, we wanted to ask our guests how many of you are vegan, and more than half of them aren't. And how many of you literally are sitting down to a plant-based meal when it would've been an omnivorous meal? And as you correctly pointed out, one in five of our guests is eating plant-based when they otherwise wouldn't.

I mentioned my grandparents earlier, my grandmother being Canadian on my dad's side. My grandparents spent 35 years as missionaries living a life of the poorest of the poor, chosen poverty. And while they spent plenty of time in church, they spent a lot of time outside of that church preaching to the people and feeding the people and taking care of the people that needed it. And so for us, we understand and depends on what statistics you look at, you could argue that 5% of the population's vegan, vegetarian overall, that maybe 10% of millennials are, and that Gen Z generation might be as much as 30 or 40%. I've got anecdotal evidence that that might be the case.

But regardless of whether you use 5 or 10 or even 30 or 40, you've got at least 60% of the population you need to speak to. And maybe as much as 95% of the population that you need to speak to. And when it comes to the state of the union in America, maybe you in Canada have it figured out better, but we're in trouble. Yeah, we've got two-thirds of our population that is overweight. One-third that's obese-

Karina Inkster: We do not have it figured out better.

Matt de Gruyter: I secretly know, my brother lives there. But don't tell anybody I said that.

Karina Inkster: Yes, yes.

Matt de Gruyter: I mean by 2030 they're projecting that half of Americans are going to have type two diabetes. I mean, just insane numbers. A statistic that I first heard from a cardiologist that took my breath away in all the wrong ways is that the average age that we can start to see the symptoms of heart disease developing in the US today. It isn't 40, it isn't 30, it isn't even 20. It's 11 years old. My daughter's 11.

Karina Inkster: Good lord. I did not know that.

Matt de Gruyter: It's insanity. I had to look it up 'cause I just couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. And so from the standpoint of the health crisis that we've found ourselves in in America, and that's where we start at Next Level was to impact people's health. And then what we've watched over the last several years is the awareness of climate change is not a far off, "We should start thinking about this problem at some point," but a clear and present danger to our generation and anyone that comes after us. And so with Next Level, we have the ability to help people, that 20% that otherwise would've grabbed a bite somewhere else that wouldn't have been plant-based, make a decision that's going to put them on the right side of the health equation. And that is going to put them on the absolutely no debate about it right side from a climate change, really climate crisis is what we need to start calling it. And what the catchall is in this sort of sustainability movement.

I love to feed the vegans and vegetarians, and I've got two of them in my house as kiddos that love NLB. And to this day, I can't believe because they've eaten it 1,001 time, thousands of times. But where it's going to make the most difference is when the Lake Oswego High School team goes through and eats at Next Level Burger. Or when the University of Denver's hockey team rolls through and they get dinner at NLB. That's where you're really making a big difference, where folks that aren't vegan, have never even thought about becoming vegetarian, but they're trying to eat more healthily for themselves and they're trying to eat more responsibly for the planet, and they can do it without any sacrifice. We think that's the cat's meow.

Karina Inkster: Well, it certainly is. You mentioned that about half of your patrons are not vegan. So I mean I think that speaks to, A, the fact that your brand appeals to all sorts of folks with all sorts of different diets, not just the diehard vegans. But also you're tackling this extremely important climate emergency, as you correctly called it, in reducing meat intake across the population. So it's not just that we need more vegans, you could argue that vegetarians are part of that equation, but I would say if you're vegetarian for ethical reasons, you should be vegan. But that's a whole other discussion.

What we need though is decreased animal product consumption across the population. And this is realistically not going to mean necessarily a shit-load more vegans. I mean that would be nice. But what you're addressing here is of course the vegan population. Of course, there's vegans who go to your restaurants. But also the fact that it appeals to folks of all different diets who are, unwittingly or not, just generally decreasing their consumption of meat, which is what we need population-wide to address the climate emergency and the environmental destruction of animal agriculture.

So I think it's hitting two things. It's the appeal of your brand to folks everywhere from a taste perspective, from a food perspective. And also the environmental and the climate change piece. And I think those are huge. They work together.

Matt de Gruyter: Yeah. And I think we need to be realistic. Because at the end of the day, you can be an idealist and you can die on the hill or you can be a pragmatist and you can conquer the hill.

Karina Inkster: Interesting.

Matt de Gruyter: And that doesn't need to look like compromise. It doesn't need to look like dilution. And if I needed to feed my kids, I'd do anything that I had to do to feed them. Okay? So what I'm going to say is predicated by that. However, to the extent that I can keep my kids fed and a roof over their shoulders, I would not want to align my interest with anything other than a pure plant-based brand. Because I can't get on board with the exploitation, with the pain and the suffering that any version of a non-vegan diet brings with it. And every time, and I started out of complete ignorance back in 2008, 2009, thinking, "Hey, I get this vegetarian thing," because we all understand you have to kill an animal to eat it, right? You get that at three years old. What is trickier is when you look at industries like milk or eggs. And yet now with the accessibility of information, we can all understand in a few clicks off of Google, "How is my milk made? What is the experience like for that cow? What is the experience like for that calf? How are my eggs made? What happens to the chickens that are born that are male?" And that doesn't even, again, get into the obvious things like, "How's bacon made? How does my steak end up on my plate?"

It's the fact that if you're not eating a plant-based diet, awkward, and I hate to say it, but there's some level of exploitation there. And if you want to argue that you're eating off of a sustainable ranch that is free-range and grass-fed and everything else, I mean, is that a step in the absolute right direction compared to factory farming? Yes. And there's no doubt about that. I would much prefer that for all sorts of reasons, animal welfare and the just pure scale of factory farming. Which I have yet, Karina, to find a single human being that will argue for. Yeah, I've never met a person who can defend factory farming. I'm sure they're out there, they're probably a board member of Cargill or whatever. They can say, "Oh no, this is why this is good for the animals. Trust me. Trust me. They love being confined to a space they can't roll over in or take care of their young in, et cetera, et cetera."

But what's tough is when you take that vegan hard line, you close people off to a better decision because they're overwhelmed by the reality, like I was at one point, that basically, everything I knew about the food system and a healthy diet was wrong. And people hold their religion and their politics near and dear to their hearts. But if you want to start an argument, bring up what you think about how people should eat. I mean it's amazing how intense, and I'm sure you've been there a thousand times, Karina, where all of a sudden everybody becomes a protein expert or everybody becomes a nutrition expert, or people feel the need to defend themselves.

And I firmly believe that people have to make their own decisions for their own reasons. You cannot beat someone over the head with a vegan message to get them to make a different decision. In fact, quite often you push them in the direction of putting their heels in. And we see this all the time, particularly on social media, where people feel like they can say and do just about anything without consequence. The results are expected. Where I think you meet people is you say, "Look, there is tremendous exploitation of animals and of the environment and of the human species," both in the downstream impact of what factory farming brings upon the earth and the humans that are quite literally exploited every single day in slaughterhouses and other places in the supply chain of animal protein production and animal byproduct production. Nobody's winning there. Nobody. This is a concept that needs to go into history as a dark chapter that needed to be closed.

And so if people need to start where I started and they need to start eating a more sustainable diet, one bite at a time, great. Because ultimately progress is progress. So at Next Level, you can always count that we're going to be a plant-based burger concept that is going to deliver awesome ingredients made out of organics and non-GMO. You're never going to have to worry, "Is this cheese dairy-cheese?" I mean, this is the funny thing that my family goes through, Karina, on a regular basis with two kids that are vegan. Less true now because they're older. But especially as food technology has gotten better, we'll get this vegan pizza and then my daughter at 11 will worry about, "But this pepperoni, you sure it's not without animals?" Because she would be horrified as she's never had animal protein touch her mouth.

And at Next Level, you can understand that no matter what you get, no matter how cheesy or beefy or anything else it tastes, it's plant-based baby. And so we can be a place where the vegan and the omnivore, heck, I've even seen some carnivores roll through a restaurant that say, "Okay, it's not my jam, but that's good," where those people can meet, get a great bite to eat, make a decision for themselves that's a positive, make a decision for the planet that's a positive. And maybe that inflection point is enough for them to think more and more about eating more sustainably over the long term. And we've seen that prove out time and time again.

Karina Inkster: That's amazing. And this goes along with some research out of Oxford that shows folks who don't eat meat are responsible for about 75% less greenhouse gas emissions than those who eat meat, which is massive. I mean, it's one of the most important individual actions that we can take. I think it's important to address larger systemic issues as well. But if we're looking at individual actions that we can take to have an impact, eating no meat, ideally no meat, even less meat if you're still currently eating animal products, is one of the largest scale effects that we can have on the climate emergency, on the environment in general. On other humans, on animals, it's massive. On our own health as well. I mean, there's a lot of folks who go vegan initially because they had a heart attack, because their doctor said, "Dude, you're going to have a major cardiac event if you don't go plant-based," from a very intense health perspective.

But then down the road they realize, "Oh, wait a second, there's an ethical piece here. Oh, wait a second. There's also an environmental piece." I mean, there's all these different reasons. And I think regardless of what brings someone to veganism in the first place, all those pieces generally show up at some point. I went vegan entirely for ethical reasons 20 years ago. Not for health, none of this environmental stuff. I didn't know any of this, this is way before Facebook, way before Instagram. But now it's all of those things. It's also athletic performance, it's all the reasons. I'm vegan for all the reasons at this point.

But what you're doing is you're presenting folks an option. If they're not already vegan, which is a good 50% of your client base, you're presenting them an option that tastes really fricking good. It's good for them from a health perspective. They're having an impact on the environment. You're checking off all the boxes. And I think that's actually a pretty impressive activism avenue. I mean, I don't know if you consider yourself an activist, but education and the food industry are ways that we can all be activists.

Matt de Gruyter: I think we've gotten to the point now in the last two or three years where we're all activists one way or the other. We're all actively supporting and promoting one future or the other. It's gotten pretty binary, right? Because the clarity around climate change in particular, we're realizing... And I love that thread, I'll pull on it. We realize now as a civilization that we need to reduce our consumption of animal products and animal byproducts by about half in this century to even have a prayer of hitting the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit on the increase in the average temperature around the world. If we were able to do that, we're going to be able to stop, with a T, 1.8 trillion pounds of coal being burned every year as an equivalent of carbon emissions just from halftime eating that way. Every year for 30 years. That's the power of 50%.

Karina Inkster: I think people need to remember that, as a lot of folks are not ready to make a full commitment, although I think that would be great. And there's a lot of options and there's a lot of support nowadays. But realistically, again, you mentioned that word earlier, we've got to be realistic. That's a way of affecting change on a large scale. And who knows, maybe some of those folks will go a hundred percent at some point. But if folks understand the massive impact that 50% has, why doesn't everybody do that?

Matt de Gruyter: Yeah. And while, again, as I shared earlier, the idea of going a hundred percent off of my red meat, which is pretty much all I was eating at that point, was terrifying. I think it would've been even that much easier to say, "Okay, I'm going to only eat half as much meat as I ate before. That's doable. I'll eat meat on the weekends or Friday, Saturday, Sunday, but I'll eat plant-based Monday through Thursday." These are things that people can conceptualize. You can also get rid of the concerns of, "Where am I going to get my B12?" Or, "Am I going to get enough iron?" Or, "Am I going to get enough calories," for some people, enough protein for others. And if you just get people to accept the fact that it's not an all-or -nothing thing and you meet them where they are, which is what we attempt to do with Next Level Burger every single day, and we've now fed millions of people food this way, then you're able to move a lot more people to the right side of that activism equation, to that either promoting a brighter future or darkening the future for all of us.

And I don't just mean humans, and I don't just mean North Americans. I mean all of us. If we find that planet Earth is our home, if we're not making more sustainable decisions on how and what we eat, and how we vote with our dollars, and how we think about every aspect of our world today, if we don't, the future is a dark place. If we do, the future can be a future of stewardship, of sustainability. Of a human species thriving as part of the planet, not sitting on top of it like a king or a queen. And I think it's time that we as a species wake up to the fact that we are not here to dominate, but to protect. We're not here to exploit but to steward. And I think we're going to accept that. I think we're going to embrace that. And I think that humanity's future and the rest of the planet's future could be brighter than it's ever been.

But it's not going to happen with us resting on our laurels. It's not going to happen with us not taking action. It's going to require everything that we have as a species. Because we all know this, unfortunately, it's always the few before it's the many. And it's going to take the people that are waking up to the small decisions that we make every day as individuals leading to the bigger decisions being made at the corporate level or at the political level, at the worldwide level to get where we need to go.

Karina Inkster: Brilliant. And so well said. Absolutely. I fully agree. And you're in the trenches doing the work. I mean, I don't want to harp on the fact that 20 years ago, my vegan option at a restaurant was an iceberg lettuce piece with maybe a sad-looking tomato on it. Maybe some fries if I was lucky. So things have come a long way since then, and I'm very excited for my own self-interests, but also on a larger scale what this is doing for the population and what kinds of options you're providing for folks in terms of health and the environment and all the things you just mentioned.

And so Matt, just to finish up here, I actually have an interesting burger-related peer-reviewed science research study that I wanted to share with you. Kind of random, but one of my swim group members, I lead an open water swim club, and so Chris from our membership has type two diabetes. And just yesterday or the day before, so it's kind of funny timing, sent me this peer-reviewed article to take a look at from 2019. So it's relatively new in terms of research, and it actually takes two groups of people, and it feeds one group a vegan burger and the other group a non-vegan burger. So it's very applicable to our discussion today. And they were measuring type two diabetes-related variables. So we're talking blood sugar, insulin secretion. So these are all folks who already have type two diabetes. And so they're matching calories, they're matching macronutrients. So the two burgers are actually pretty equivalent in terms of “nutrition,” in quotes, except one of them is plant-based and one of them isn't. And what they found...

Oh, by the way, it's a crossover design. So what that means is the first round group one had the vegan burger and group two had the meat burger, and then in the second round they switched. So it's the same people first eating a vegan burger and then eating a non-vegan or the other way around. So it makes it a little more, it's randomized and it's a little more controlled, basically what that means. Anyways, what they found, here's the words of the researchers in their abstract, are, "Results showed an increase in post-prandial," which means post-meal, "insulin secretion after consumption of a vegan meal, suggesting a therapeutic potential of plant-based meals for improving beta cell function in type two diabetes."

So again, they matched calories, they matched macros. They need more research into why this might be the case, but there's actually a better insulin response in people who already have type two diabetes when they're eating a vegan burger versus a meat-based one. So of course, we need to go into what are the mechanisms and why does this occur? But it's kind of an interesting tidbit that they... they're not looking at a whole foods, big ass salad versus a meat burger. They're looking at two types of burgers, and I'm not sure what the ingredients are. But it's pretty wild that they're looking at blood levels of insulin and what happens in the digestive tract, and you actually have a better outcome in folks who already have a chronic disease with the plant-based burger. And the researchers are not surprisingly saying, "Maybe this is going to be part of what we use to treat chronic conditions like this," which we already know. I mean, you've mentioned the China Study before and there's lots of researchers that have looked at reversing chronic disease through this.

But I thought it was kind of funny timing because my friend Chris just brought this up yesterday and it's about burgers, and it's kind of interesting.

Matt de Gruyter: In fact, I'd say I take what you're saying to the next level. See, I do that all the time. And say that it's so unbelievably powerful to understand that you just switch out the patty and you have that positive of an impact.

Karina Inkster: Yeah, nothing else changes. That's a great point.

Matt de Gruyter: I'd love to be able to put my fingertips in that study and poke around and ask some questions. Did you feel like you were... "John, Jane, did you feel like you were sacrificing as you were eating your vegan burger?" My guess is if it's a good one, not even remotely. "So you're literally real-time burger therapy, vegan burger therapy for a healthier lifestyle without sacrifice. Is that right, John or Jane?" "Yeah, yeah, it's right." "So why don't you keep doing this?” I mean and that's first-level stuff. It's not like they're eating an organic quinoa mushroom patty that's full of superfoods, is my guess. I imagine it was probably a more processed vegan burger.

Karina Inkster: I would think so. Yeah, I would guess.

Matt de Gruyter: Yeah, that's fine. I mean, that's my guess. And that's the thing. As we bring this to a close Karina, it's tough because you and I... I've been eating plant-based, I started that shift in 2010. I went completely vegan in 2014. 'Cause my first step was a step in the direction of eating plant-based, but I still had seafood now and then and I still had dairy now and then. And then as I learned more and more, I realized, "Man, it's not a mostly vegan thing for me. It's an all-in." And so here I am coming up on 10 years of eating this way.

The same way that we look back on, "Wait, women couldn't vote at the beginning of the last century? How is that even possible in the United States?” we're going to look back, I hope at the end of this century, and go, "We used to eat animals? Like real live animals at scale and their milk?" Because I'm convinced that the rapidity with which we have seen the change in just how we do things in the last, since that study, in the last four years. Man, five years from now, 10 years from now, and 30 years from now, you're going to see the entire world eating differently. Whether it's plant-based meats, which is what I think the future is in plant-based products, even more so than cultivated meat. But if it's cultivated meat over the horror of our factory farming system, man, I'll take that all day long. But what I can tell you, what I can guarantee you is that our future is not factory farms, and we will be all of us better off for it.

What I hope is it's not just what we aren't, it's what we are. And we are as thriving and eating food that is literally going to stop someone from getting type two diabetes because their body's getting what it needs. That's going to stop that heart attack that takes a man from his family or a woman from her partnership. 200 years from now, going further out for humanity, when we look back on what we accomplished in the 20th and the 21st century, of the destruction of the 20th and the pivot of the 21st, that allowed the 23rd and the 24th and the 25th century and beyond to even be possible. And that's what we worked so very hard on every day.

Karina Inkster: Well said. And I like what you said about not just what we're deleting or what we're not doing, it's also about the positives, what we're adding in. It's kind of like the approach to veganism. You don't want to focus on deprivation and avoidance. You want to focus on abundance and all the amazing foods you can eat and all the net positives. Which you're a huge part of with your brand, which is so excellent. And I'm so grateful that you came on the show, Matt, awesome to connect with you. Thank you so much.

Matt de Gruyter: Thank you so much.

Karina Inkster: Matt, Thank you again for speaking with me. Make sure you access our show notes at And thanks so much for listening.

Download your free vegan strength training ebook by Coach K!

  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
bottom of page