Live Purely with Steven Salm
Live Purely with Steven Salm

"People are more indulgent about their health than they are about anything in today's younger generation. And that's an amazing shift that we have to continue to be huge advocates and supporters of." 

- Steven Salm

Steven Salm of PLANTA: Normalizing the Plant-Based Restaurant and Championing Delicious Change in The Plant-Based Movement

Elizabeth welcomes Steven Salm, Founder and CEO of PLANTA Group, to discuss his journey from traditional hospitality to pioneering the plant-based dining scene. Steven shares his awakening to a plant-based lifestyle after watching “Cowspiracy'' and how it inspired him to champion change through food. He talks about growing PLANTA to 20 locations across North America with a mission to normalize plant-based living. Steven also discusses the challenges of running restaurants, cultivating an engaged workforce, and how the plant-based industry has evolved in recent years to become more accessible and delicious.

  • PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is Steven Salm, founder and CEO of PLANTA group, a fast-growing International Hospitality Group, whose mission is to continuously expand the power of plant-based living by creating dining experiences that encourage guests to both let loose and feel nourished balancing indulgence with wellness. PLANTA has 20 beautiful locations across the US and Canada and I've recently gone to the Miami location which was delicious. In this episode, we talk about Steven’s hospitality journey and his professional path in the hotel and restaurant industry. From working at the Ritz Carlton and BLT hospitality in New York City, Steven shares about his journey towards a plant-based diet after watching the documentary Cowspiracy, which was the catalyst to champion change across the food system and open a plant-based restaurant that celebrated vegetables. We talk about the challenges and success factors of running a restaurant, how to build a culture in a restaurant environment, Steven’s viewpoint on lab-grown meats, and how the plant-based industry has evolved. And lastly, we talked about how Steven stays healthy and balanced while traveling. Keep listening to learn all about Steven and PLANTA.

    Steven, welcome to the podcast. It's such a pleasure to meet you. And I'm so excited to hear your story. And all you have to share with us today.

    Steven Salm 01:52
    So nice to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

    Elizabeth Stein 01:56
    I know you weren't always into plant-based eating and doing what you're doing today. So let's take a step back and go into your previous career, what you started out doing after college, and what your path has been.

    Steven Salm 02:14
    Yeah, believe it or not, I have chosen this path. I have always loved hospitality. And raised with hospitality at the forefront of our lives at home whether it was holidays, being the house growing up that always was known for meals being served at all times of the day, or people dropping in constantly.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:39
    Where did you grow up?

    Steven Salm 02:41
    I grew up in New York. My mom is Canadian. My father was born in Germany and then emigrated to the US during the war. So European Canadian parents were raised in New York. And the typical family life where just food was at the center of every discussion. Eating dinner on Tuesday discussing, what we were going to have for dinner on Wednesday. And that's really where I would say my hospitality career began just being an active contributor at home, whether it's just cooking washing dishes, or prepping at the youngest ages. And then when it came down to kind of getting serious about where I wanted to dedicate both study and professional career to, it was like, I think I want to be in hospitality. And it was like, no, that's not a great path for you. I think become a doctor, or maybe a lawyer. And I was always fascinated by hotels in particular, how there could be a swim-up bar and a casino and a nightclub and room service and banquets and all of these things going on. And of course, when you're young and a teenager, you think that these hotels make billions of dollars of revenue because you just see so much activity. So I got a job working for Ritz Carlton. Not necessarily my first job, but that's really what started hospitality for me and went through training in New York, and realized that there was quite a bureaucracy in becoming successful in the hotel industry, and not one that I was particularly admired. I felt that I wanted to do something creative and be entrepreneurial. And Ritz Carlton was an amazing place to be trained on how to care for guests. But it wasn't teaching you how to be an entrepreneur. My first management role in restaurants was with BLT restaurants in New York.

    Elizabeth Stein 04:53
    I remember that restaurant well. We were talking about those amazing rolls that they had.

    Steven Salm 05:02
    Yeah, so started as the maitre d and kind of worked my way up through management roles, their assistant manager, Assistant, GM, and then ultimately allowed to become a general manager, and learned so much about hospitality, about spirit, about the soul, and how you could combine all of these aspects of creativity, business, and artistry on one p&l, and it was an incredible experience. I was then recruited to work at a very large sports and entertainment company in Toronto called Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment. They're the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, the Toronto FC, and a significant real estate portfolio as well and allowed to create. It wasn't an easy thing for me to say yes to it's not as if I just got a call and said yes. It was a very extensive courting process that ultimately got me to say, yes, to leave New York, because New York was home for so many things and so many reasons. And it was such an incredible decision that I made working for truly amazing entrepreneurs and kind of this level of business intelligence, but also working in a company that had accomplished so much, but never really tried and tested the external restaurant scene that these were just owners of teams. So I had the opportunity to work on developing some amazing concepts. About two and a half years into my journey with the company, they sold the teams. It was owned by a pension fund and sold it to two telecommunications companies, the equivalent of AT&T and Verizon in Canada. It’s called Bell and Rogers. And at that time, it was made pretty clear that this entrepreneurial path of building restaurants was going to end. And they were going to focus on all the things that made a lot more money, like content and digital acquisition, and so on. And had developed such an amazing rapport with the ownership and leadership in that company that I went to them and said, “Listen, let's work out a path that says I'm gonna leave this organization, but I'm gonna leave and start my own business. And I don't want to be building my business plan while I'm your employee. So let's figure out a timeline that works.” And we did and that kind of started my entrepreneurial journey in 2012. I partnered with a friend and a family office and we built our first restaurant that opened up in 2013. It was called the Chase in Toronto, and it's still open today, was named the best restaurant in Canada the year that we opened, and just had some amazing early success. I don't know if it was luck, skill, or a combination of all the things but it felt like I had the tailwinds of some angels on my side there. Because outside of everything that traditionally goes wrong in restaurants, which they did, we had a lot of things go correct. We sort of took that success and kept open restaurants like a multi-concept Restaurant Group. So we opened up a French bakery, a New England fish shack, and a high-end Japanese restaurant. Fast forward to 2016. We have four restaurants and about 300 employees. I watched Cowspiracy on a cold January morning in Toronto, off of the recommendation of someone who was extremely involved in animal conservation and not so much animal conservation as you would see holding PETA signs protesting animals, eating animals, but transporting rhinos out of harm's way from the Okanagan, Delta, in Botswana to different parts to safety. And we had just taken a trip to Africa the December before and I have always had such a passion for animals but that's a trip of a lifetime. And so we decided to go give up red meat after watching that. And I say we mean I watched and I convinced my wife to give up red meat with me that day. And it was Sunday, and then by Tuesday, I'm like, wait a minute, I don't feel any different. What happens? What happens to your body if you're not eating red meat and where am I gonna get my protein? Like every single ignorant question that I get asked every day. And I was like, you know what, I don't feel any different. So I'm just gonna go fully vegan. It was then in there that nothing tasted as good as the way I was feeling. I was thinking better, I was performing better, and I felt like I was a better leader at work. And it became very clear after a couple of weeks that no matter what I said, or did, or even if I said nothing, kept my mouth shut, I was always the focus topic of every conversation at the dinner table. Like, oh, what's the vegan going to eat? Are you sure? We're going to the right restaurant. When it was my turn to order at the restaurant, they were like, “Okay, get ready, let's see what he's gonna say.” And so it was like this is crazy. Like, I have ultimate self-confidence and no issue whatsoever, taking all the heat. But like, this is crazy that if this is where people who decide to choose to eat plant-based based have to deal with amongst their peers, I need to build a restaurant that celebrates vegetables and gives people the confidence and excitement to walk in and feel satisfied. And that's when we kind of put the idea around PLANTA to paper. And within a few months, that September, we opened up our first location in Toronto. September 2016, and kind of fast-forward to 2023. We're about to open up our 15th location, 13th in the US, we have to be in Toronto still, and it's building a restaurant company, and working on scaling and training, and being a leader and being a father, and all of those things are all intertwined into this hot mess of growth that we're in right now. So that's the Coles Notes version, the 13-minute version.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:53
    I love it. Well, I can't wait to dig into all those different facets of you and grow the business. The first thing I'm thinking of is after watching Cowspiracy, which maybe if you just want to touch on for a second, what that movie is about, and what was the biggest aha when you were watching it?

    Steven Salm 12:13
    Yeah, so this is 2016, thinking about going to a grocery store in 2016, it’s very different. I may have to choose almond or cashew milk or soy milk from the health food aisle. And now it's like, the dairy aisle is two things. The nondairy is like 100 cooler. So it's a very different time, even though for a short amount of time, it felt like a different world and a different universe back then. And you can only imagine and give credit to all of these pro-plant-based activists and diners who have been vegan since the 80s. It's like what were you eating? And so it was just a documentary exclusively around the climate impact of animal agriculture. And it was uncovering this secret of just truly how unsustainable we have built our society around the food system. If you think about how my parents and grandparents would have sourced food for their own home in the pre-industrial era, it was like there was milk delivery from a local farm and egg delivery from a local farm and you would know that butcher by name. And that world, we are very far away from right now. We are in a world of ultimate convenience, we are saying not only do I not even want to know where my food is coming from, I'm just going to order it on my phone, close my eyes, and whether it's groceries or McDonald's or anything in the world, I want it delivered to my doorstep, I'm not going to ask any questions. So we've traded this ultimate level of convenience and low prices for uncovering and hiding the truth about what happens. We don't have to talk about the food system, but to know that we're growing food in one continent, we have to burn down rainforests, to even have the space to grow the food. And then use all of that food that we grow to then ship to another continent to feed animals, and then raise animals for however long it takes. And when I say however long it takes, meaning like there is the birth of an animal that needs to be fed and hydrated until the point where they are converted into a commodity and then goes through a processing facility to then ship what you have got obtained from that animal to any country or continent in the world. It's just ludicrous. It doesn't need to be that way. I mean, of course, it does for maximum profitability industrialization. But what world should we be, just destroying the Amazon rainforest to grow food and then shipping to Nebraska to then ship that product to China? It just doesn't make sense. And so when you combine all of the steps of that sustainability secret, you realize what am I contributing to? I have a very long history of enjoying animal products for my entire life up until however many years ago, and I recognize that this is food that is truly indulgent and delicious to eat and has all of the different components of satisfaction. But at what expense? At an expense that I can just simply say, like, I am in the business of selling food, and I now know this and I cannot do anything about it, just doesn't feel right. That's really what drove this interest in making a difference. When I say make a difference, it's more about like, okay being an activist is not a way to attract people to eating plant-based, like holding up signs and saying, don't wear this or don't eat that. Has never been a way to win a popularity contest. But instead, can we build something that is just normal? And when I say normal, meaning normal to the 93% of people who identify themselves as not being vegan. And the answer is that I think we can. And what we've chosen to do is not market ourselves as vegan anywhere, it's just we’re a great restaurant. Period. It starts there, and it ends there. And it just so happens that when you order anything from our menu, there will be no animal products consumed. And we are hoping and feel very confident that when you leave, you won't miss them.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:25
    I love that, I think that it's so critical to have that approach really in changing people's opinions. And for us as a brand. We didn't want to have this trade-off of culinary taste, in eating healthy. So it's the same sort of way of how do you get to a consumer and to say, this is delicious, whether it's healthy or not, this is delicious, whether it's plant-based or not. And in your case, I think also making a beautiful restaurant that people want to go to. So it's not as we think about a plant-based restaurant in the 80s, for example, that was like, lovely for some people, but not necessarily where you'd want to take a bunch of friends out and all have a good night out. So I think your design has also come through in that way, as well. So when you first watched this and had a change of diet, and then the idea for a planter came to be when you went to your team and your investors, your group, what was the reaction of everyone? And what was that like for you trying to convince them of, hey, I want to pivot?

    Steven Salm 18:36
    At the first board meeting, we discussed the idea of plant and it wasn't even called plant back then it had 140 other names that were not PLANTA. And it was basically like, I want to open up an entirely plant-based restaurant, kind of the patriarch of the family office looked at me and said, “I think it's time he starts eating meat again.” And we all had a good chuckle and I was like, “Listen, this is something that I feel extremely passionately about.” And if that means doing this outside of Chase Hospitality Group, which was our hospitality group, I was certainly willing and wanted to pursue it at any cost, because I did feel like not only from a business perspective but there is still a huge amount of passion and artistry that goes into making hospitality make sense. And if that's where I was dedicating all of my passion time and energy I knew that I could make this into something successful, or at least I wouldn't try to let anything get in the way of that. It just kind of happened. Everyone was supportive and felt that passion and we opened up our doors and it felt like we opened up a vegan restaurant very much so. We had lots of guests like vegan for the animals, all these pro-animal activist gear on day one. And I'm like, okay, this is not really what we want PLANTA to be, and not saying that we don't welcome that because of course we know that this restaurant is going to speak to the plant-based community. But if we're trying to make a difference, we need to get people who were dining at a steak house last night, and they need to be eating this. It's not a light switch and it's certainly not a linear graph. But if you were to discuss today, in 2016, with a mediator and say, “Well, what would be your red meat consumption?” And they would say, “I don't know, maybe twice a week, three times a week.” And you were to talk to that same person today. I'm not guaranteeing it, but I can certainly stand behind a lot of anecdotal data that suggests that that person would have a very different answer today than they did seven years ago. That's just the process of evolution. So we recognize this as an early restaurant for our time. But the young generation that we have to continue to sort of invest so much education in is that they're not going to need animal protein to be nourished. And that's through a combination of plant-based proteins, it's a combination of lab-grown meat, that's a combination of really amazing non-dairy products that are coming to market. And it's just because it's not saying that like, well, you can't replicate this. It's more that like, you don't have to. Like, there's no need to anymore between the technology, and the evolution, and where people are gearing towards, like this level of intelligence, are more intelligent about their health than they are about anything in today's younger generation. And that's an amazing shift that we have to continue to be huge advocates and supporters of.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:08
    Yeah. So you mentioned meats, and I'm curious to hear you don't use any sort of meat analogs and how you are thinking about that, but then also how you think about lab-grown meat?

    Steven Salm 22:27
    Yeah. Well, I think it's, I think it's a remarkably interesting technology. I've never tried it myself. I think there's this big argument back and forth, and whether or not it's vegan or not, and I don't even know the answer to that. I would probably say it's not. I think it produces the same outcome, and it's more sustainable, and it allows the rainforest to be rainforests, and it allows climate change to reverse. And I'm all for it. I think that this is exactly what evolution is. We are an incredibly smart, disciplined species. And we have to use that education for the good of the world and not the opposite.

    Elizabeth Stein 23:19
    What do you think about the health benefits of it? It seems like there's so much unknown at this point, right?

    Steven Salm 23:25
    Yeah, I would truly say that I'm not the best person to speak to until I educate myself try the product myself, and learn about it. But I think for right now, to get a cutlet, for instance, made from the mushroom route, is truly delicious. And it's got great protein, and it's got great fiber, and it's got great calories and good calories. Like, what an amazing use of ingenuity.

    Elizabeth Stein 23:58
    Like the MIDI product. It's incredible.

    Steven Salm 24:01
    It is. Like all for it, like good for them, and proud to just be a part of this movement in any way we can, like pulling our weight.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:14
    I have to ask this question because I know people are thinking about it in their heads and you get this question all the time what's your favorite? Where are you getting your protein? What's your favorite plant-based protein?

    Steven Salm 24:23
    I'm probably again like really into like just building well-nourished meals at home for myself and my family. I'm not thinking about, oh, I'm doing this for protein, calories, fiber, this and that. Like, I will build my meals based on what is a healthy and nourishing combination of foods for my family. So lots of fruit and lots of vegetables and lots of juice and beans and grains. If I have a craving for some type of burger, we have frozen PLANTA burgers in the freezer. My kids love Beyond Sausage and our kids love the Jack and Annie's Jackfruit Tenders, on top of or in addition to anything else. And then the next day, they'll be like, these are gross, I never want to eat these. And then we'll go to a friend's birthday party and they have chicken tenders and they want to try them. I'm fully encouraging them to do so because I do think that to allow ultimate flexibility in this movement, everyone needs to show that we're going to meet you halfway whichever way that is, if it's a step in the right direction or the wrong direction. Having a rigid approach is never been a popular vote. When it does is especially when it comes down to your body. Sometimes you just know, like, hey, I need this. And if a kid feels that way, then enjoy that. I think that's where my own body was like, okay, I'm craving like, like some real hangover food. I can get into that with delicious hashbrowns and just egg products and an amazing croissant. And I'm like, I've just given myself the most amazing breakfast sandwich that is unhealthy. But it satisfies every bit of craving that I have right now. So I think where do I get my protein, I eat a lot of super well-balanced foods. I saw that there was a question on what's the one thing you can't live without. It starts and stops with my green juice in the morning. I swear to God, I travel about three weeks a month and I will stay at hotels when I travel that are nearby for me being able to get green juice in the morning because that has turned into that much of a routine. I don't think I've missed a day in years. And if I do, I just travel with the little Athletic Greens packages for emergencies, I don't love it, but I celery, apple, lemon, cucumber, and ginger, every single day.

    Elizabeth Stein 27:16
    And you're discerning of where you're getting that from? Because like where are you finding a hotel that is near Juice Bar? Or are you at Whole Foods?

    Steven Salm 27:24
    Exactly. Anywhere. And sometimes there's like, I mean, if it's New York, your options are endless because every Bodega has like a juice bar component to it, which is just amazing. And if it's California, there's everywhere. Fortunately, our restaurants are located in cities that are pretty sophisticated from a health and wellness perspective. So that certainly plays into the creature comfort but there's a gym in DC that has a juice bar that will do a custom juice, and it took me like three hotels to find it. I am pretty restrictive when it comes to that.

    Elizabeth Stein 28:02
    I think it's great. I mean, as someone who travels all the time too, it's like you get in, you find the things that you need to have and that becomes super important because traveling can be so exhausting. So knowing what you need to feel your best is so key. I'd love to talk a little bit about Obviously having a restaurant is super difficult, so much failure in restaurants. Although that being said, there's so much failure in every business. So I don't know statistically what that looks like, but super difficult to run a restaurant business, I would love to hear where you have seen this success come from and what's been most important for you in growing these restaurants that you have today.

    Steven Salm 28:47
    There's probably not a business out there that has a higher failure rate than restaurants. It already takes the challenging component of retail and just basically adds a 24-hour component to it. That's first and foremost, the second is it starts with your people, and it stops with your people, they have to feel refreshed and excited to come to work every day. That's probably our number one asset. It's, of course, our number one liability, because our most expensive item in our business is providing all of our employees with a wage that they can now live on, and fighting against inflation plus everything else economically in our industry, is some pretty challenging equations to balance. So what contributes to our success? I think that first and foremost I mentioned our people, but I think the other massive part of that is that I think we have purpose. I think that that's what gives our business a different element than just a traditional restaurant. I'm not saying that PLANTA isn't a traditional restaurant. But it is certainly a category that is different, it's purposeful. And it's driven by all of those elements of passion and purpose. And I think that that's super critical. Not all of our businesses are successful and success is different elements of being defined. Are we only defining success by EBITDA? Or are we defining success by retention of guest happiness and guest satisfaction and the most amount of visitations? And specifically like in our Florida region, if we were to say, okay, every single month in Florida is going to be like January, February, then we would have the most successful region. But that's not the reality of South Florida. And so how do you define success? I think that there are a lot of different ways to answer that in hospitality. But of course, for an investment purpose, you've got to be in it for the long haul. And you've got to be in it to understand that you're going to be getting a lot more curveballs than wins in your daily life.

    Elizabeth Stein 31:14
    So how do you define success for your restaurants today?

    Steven Salm 31:16
    I think we try to evaluate all of the aspects of what success looks like. We look at our sales, we look at our retention, we look at our guest satisfaction scores, we look at our employee retention, we look at our guest retention, and look at our week-over-week and year-over-year performance. So there are a lot of things to describe, but you can tell a restaurant that has an engaged workforce versus not. For instance, you do an initiative, whether it's a dumpling feature or a cocktail feature, and you look at the restaurants that have a massive percentage of their sales going towards those feature items, you know that employee network is engaged, and they're excited to talk about it versus ones that just check the box, let the guest see for themselves that this is what we're offering. So there are very different elements of what defines success. And it isn't just one thing.

    Elizabeth Stein 32:19
    So as you talk about people, and that being the number one thing in the restaurant business, what tips can you share for really cultivating a great culture, motivating your team, and really what has made you become the leader that you are today with those people?

    Steven Salm 32:38
    I think, first of all, to say that I don't have opportunities is completely false. I think that especially in the way in the manner in which we scaled, it's, it's been the hardest thing to do. So I would give equal credit to all of our leaders in addition to myself, of course. I'm championing the vision of their work and their contributions. But first and foremost, is recognizing that this isn't a one-man show. And this is a 10 to 15-person show to pull off this orchestra the way that we want it to happen. But I think first it's just recognizing that we make mistakes, and we own them. And being an environment where you can communicate those mistakes. And a lot of people don't realize that that's an awesome place to be if you are an employee. It often takes those employees a resignation, and then coming back to realize what they've given up and saying that like, wow, like a truly progressive company allows you to make mistakes and allows you to communicate actually how you feel and what you recommend versus working for these more dictator, tyranny style leaders that are just like it is this way or no way and that has its benefits in terms of drilling in a militant style service, but we're also trying to shape a movement, we're also trying to convince our very own employees that a plant-based lifestyle should be recognized and followed. So I would say open communication, allowing mistakes having a set vision and values that align and define your company. We have values that champion, humble, authentic, sustainable experiences. Champion, we plan to win, humble, we make mistakes and we own them, authentic, be the best version of yourself. Sustainable, always think long term and experiences, we build real relationships. And all of those aspects contribute to our ecosystem, the PLANTAverse we call it.

    Elizabeth Stein 35:06
    I love that. It's all about the team and the people. That's what makes it what it is. As you mentioned, at the very beginning of your experience at the Ritz Carlton learning hospitality. Was there something in that experience that has influenced you from a, whether it's team perspective, or how you think abo

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