The idea for a vegan burger restaurant came to Steele Smiley during one of many dinners with his son at his other company, the salad chain Crisp & Green.
"When your dad's in the restaurant business, you eat in his restaurant," Smiley said. But one night, his son confronted him, saying, "Dad, why do we always have to eat salads?"
Smiley thought about it. "It was one of those moments where the pin dropped, everything was silent, and I was thinking, I don't want to take him back to McDonald's."
Instead, he started working on a new business plan for a burger chain done his way: entirely plant-based.
Smiley, an entrepreneur who launched Crisp & Green in Wayzata in 2016, has been vegan for seven years.
With the introduction of Stalk & Spade, he's taking on the McDonald's model with a burger franchise that has no meat or dairy on the premises.
Stalk & Spade will be launched April 22 — Earth Day — at 740 E. Lake St., Wayzata, in a former Starbucks across the street from Smiley's flagship Crisp & Green. It's the first of what he expects will be many, in Minnesota and beyond.
"We've had plant-based products now over a decade, but a lot of the items taste like plants," Smiley said. "The only way to make a successful national brand is to make sure every product you offer tastes like the classic originals. I'm convinced we've cracked the code on how to build the perfect burger, the perfect chicken sandwich, the perfect shake, all plant-based, without people knowing it."
The burger in particular is a housemade blend inspired by "bits and pieces" from the other meatless burgers on the market. The faux-chicken sandwich "tastes like Chick-fil-A," Smiley said. For dessert, sundaes, "vortexes" with mix-ins and cones are all dairy-free, "so your customer gets everything they never knew they always wanted."
Smiley admits to having missed some of those foods from his pre-vegan days. But he never looked back after switching his diet on a Mayo doctor's recommendation.
"I went hard-core," he said. "It changed my life. I had 30 percent more energy within the first week."
Look for more Stalk & Spade stores in Minnesota by summer and fall. Meanwhile, Smiley's Crisp & Green is expanding nationally. There are seven locations in Minnesota and dozens slated to open this year in the Midwest and Florida.
Smiley says he's already fielding interest in Stalk & Spade from franchisees in other states.
"Give me something that tastes like the original and I'm in," he said. "The brand that does that is going to be the next McDonald's."