Next Level Burger brings West Coast vegan burgers to Fort Greene, Brooklyn

When Whole Foods Market 365 opens its first East Coast location in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, later this month, the budget offshoot of the health-minded grocer will introduce New York to another West Coast original: a vegan burger chain.

The city already offers its share of dairy- and meat-free burgers, including established players like the all-vegan fast-food chain By Chloe and vegetarian East Village joint Superiority Burger, but Next Level Burger will stand out for its wide selection of vegan-only options (everything from a “signature burger” made with a mushroom-and-quinoa patty to the “Spicy Bean,” a black bean and veggie patty topped with creamy horseradish sauce and organic jalapenos).

The brand is the creation of Matthew and Cierra de Gruyter, a husband-and-wife team that launched a restaurant out of Bend, Oregon, in 2014. The de Gruyters drew inspiration for an all-vegan menu from the diet they and their kids keep at home, says Matt de Gruyter, 35, a former venture capitalist whose family history of heart disease convinced him to kick a red meat habit. (His wife, a long-time vegetarian who taught herself to cook when she first became a mom, is the creator of almost all the dishes on the menu.)

“What we believe is that Next Level Burger represents the way people are going to be eating more and more in the future,” de Gruyter says. “In 2013, about a third of country was actively reducing meat and dairy consumption. This year, it’s now over two-thirds.”

The de Gruyters’ emphasis on organic, non-GMO ingredients they characterize as healthy for both the people who eat them and the environment makes their concept an obvious fit for a partnership with Whole Foods Market 365, which promises shoppers an inventory “free of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives and hydrogenated fats” and partners with outside chefs, food brands and culinary personalities at all its locations. (Three of Next Level’s five locations on the West Coast are operating out of Whole Foods.)

When you walk into the new two-level store opening Jan. 31 at 292 Ashland Pl., you’ll see the de Gruyters’ counter and seating area right at the entrance, alongside a Juice Press bar and an Orwashers coffee bar and bakery, Whole Foods spokesman Ted Kwong explains.

Two Brooklyn-themed exclusive items are joining the menu at this particular Next Level location, he added: a “Brooklyn Burger” topped with smoky tempeh bacon, caramelized onions, vegan smoked gouda and molasses barbecue sauce, and a “Fort Greene Shake” with banana, dark chocolate and sweet green kale. (It wouldn’t be Brooklyn without kale, right?)

Vegan food replicating non-vegan fast food always seems like magic to us, so we asked de Gruyter to break down the secrets of everything else you’ll be able to order:

The burgers

At Next Level, all buns are alike (they’re made from sprouted whole grains unless you choose the gluten-free alternative), but patties range from the omnivore-pleasing, beef-replicating Beyond Meat patties (which “bleed” beet juice) to hardcore vegan options made with ingredient combos like mushroom and quinoa, or black beans and vegetables.

”That was one of the founding principles of Next Level: That we weren’t going to build it just for vegans or vegetarians,” de Gruyter says of the range. “We wanted everyone from A to Z.”

He claims the “Signature burger” — a house-made umami mushroom and quinoa patty topped with avocado slices, vegan cheese and roasted garlic-thyme mayo — as his go-to because “it’s just a phenomenal mouth-feel and taste and you feel so good after it.”

The cheese

From our experience, vegan cheese ranges broadly in ingredients and quality, but de Gruyter says that Next Level’s “cheddar” and “Swiss” styles are both “dynamite.”

“In fact, I’ve had people get really alarmed and concerned that they were eating dairy,” he adds.

The burger joint’s “cheddar” is made with a plant-based oil, the “Swiss” with coconut and tofu.

The fries

Next Level offers customers the option to bake or fry their fries — “if you want to be naughty,” de Gruyter says. “And if you’re going to be naughty, we’re going to make it as guiltless a process as possible, because we’re going to use organic sunflower oil.”

You can also add up to 340 calories to your crinkle-cut, tot or sweet potato fries with topping combinations like the Bleu BBQ (smoky tempeh bacon, melted “cheddar,” “blue cheese” and barbecue sauce).

“This is have your cake and eat it, too” de Gruyter says. “This is get down on chili cheese fries and a burger, and feel fantastic at the end — not guilt-ridden and ready for a nap.”

(New York, we invite you to test this hypothesis and write us back.)

The milkshakes

Next Level’s shakes, which are made with either soy or coconut soft serve, come in two categories of flavor: classics like vanilla, and “next level” like salted caramel peanut and mint chocolate cup. New seasons bring new choices, too, like pumpkin and apple for the fall.

De Gruyter calls the coconut shakes “one of my wife’s best creations to date.”

The hot dogs and sausages

These are made with wheat barley and vegetables. If you order a “Next Level” or “Chili Chz” hot dog, “it’s going be a classically seasoned frankfurter — so not ballpark hot dog, but a real old- fashioned hot dog experience,” de Gruyter says.

The Animal

Weighing in at a whopping 1230-1310 calories with as many as 80 grams of protein, even de Gruyter wouldn’t call this burger health food, “but it’s still cholesterol-free and all plant-based,” he noted.

The Animal is de Gruyter’s solo contribution to a menu that is otherwise entirely his wife’s creation. “Really what we wanted to craft was that which I would look for when I stepped into a burger joint,” he says. “And that was the biggest, baddest burger on the menu.”

The Animal comes loaded with two sausage-style patties, smoky tempeh bacon, a layer of crinkle-cut fries, sautéed onion, vegan cheese, “special sauce” (which de Gruyter wouldn’t unpack for us) and barbecue sauce.

More from around NYC