It’s a little after noon when we catch SweetChops co-founder Adam Gilbert in the kitchen, prepping for that night’s dinner service. Right now, he’s “spiralizing” butternut squash and daikon, transforming the root vegetables into noodles for the vegan restaurant’s popular Seoul Bowl.
Any time in the kitchen is a departure from Gilbert’s (pictured) previous restaurant job with casual dining chain The Pickle Barrel, where he spent eight years as vice-president of marketing before leaving the company last year.
“It’s a pivot, for sure,” he says when asked about his more hands-on role at his new Toronto vegan restaurant. “There was no food prep involved for me at The Pickle Barrel. It’s humbling just being closer to the food or doing the dishes.
“When you’re closer to it, you can see the whole process of creation, whereas I was more distanced from that as marketer,” he adds. “I spent eight years at The Pickle Barrel, but never once did I hop in the dish pit.”
Gilbert left The Pickle Barrel early last year to develop SweetChops with his friend and colleague Alex Paquin, CEO of the Toronto/Amsterdam advertising agency Zerotrillion.
The new joint-venture company is housed under Zerotrillion Ventures, an offshoot of the one-year-old agency dedicated to non-advertising projects that appeal to its principals. “We’re very much compelled to be a part of the big ideas of our time,” Paquin explains. “That’s where the name Zerotrillion comes from. It’s a reminder for us every day to go all-in, or we may as well be doing nothing.”
SweetChops is the first of the Zerotrillion ventures to arrive on the market, although Paquin says that several others—including a sustainably produced luxury apparel brand, a quarterly design, art, travel and lifestyle publication, and an e-sports property—are in various stages of development.
“Any one of these businesses could ultimately be bigger than any advertising company,” says Paquin. “It kind of stems from a challenge towards the [marketing] industry that I’ve had in my mind almost as long as I’ve worked in it: If we have so much conviction in how we tell our clients how they should be spending their marketing dollars, or designing a customer experience, or changing their product… [we should] put our money where our mouth is.
“If we’re so great at having ideas about how to create a product or design a customer experience, or market it, then we should be making them ourselves.”
Zerotrillion is also behind SweetChops’ visually striking brand identity—a sort of ’60s-psychedelia inspired look that brings together elements like mouths (including one visual that appears indebted to the Rolling Stones’ famous lips logo), hands and veggies like zucchini and eggplant.
It’s already received several plaudits, says Paquin, with one customer who works in marketing telling the owners in a text message that it’s “on point.”
“We feel it’s quite a standout brand design,” says Paquin. “A statement that brings a bit more edge and sexiness to a typically boring category: vegetarian food.”
Gilbert stayed with The Pickle Barrel for about a year after its 2017 acquisition by what is now Recipe Unlimited, which operates several QSR/casual dining chains including Swiss Chalet, The Keg and Harvey’s.
But his attitudes towards meat and factory farming meant that his heart was no longer in it. To borrow from an enduring Harvey’s marketing slogan, you might say that he’d come to believe that meat-heavy menus were no longer a beautiful thing.
Instead, the SweetChops menu reflects what Gilbert and Paquin describe as the “three plant pillars”: reducing animal suffering, healing the planet, and improving human health. “If we can make fantastic food that can have an impact, that’s something we wanted to strive for,” says Gilbert.
The founders originally planned to hire a vegan chef, which led to lots of proposed menu items constructed around conventional meat substitutes like tofu and processed soy.
“We didn’t like that approach at all,” says Paquin. “Being at our core a creative agency that is essentially trying to re-invent customer experiences through an empathetic view of what they need and what the market needs, we basically said ‘We want to create an amazing menu, and oh, by the way, it happens to be plant-based.'”
SweetChops is built around what they describe as a plant-based take on “modern Americana.” Developed by Top Chef Canada: All-Stars contestant Dustin Gallagher (“He’s a big fucking deal in the world of Canadian chefs, and we’re stupid lucky to have him,” says Paquin), the SweetChops menu features veggie variations on casual-dining staples like burgers and meatball subs.
Its most popular items include a Jerkfruit Sammie (made with roasted jackfruit but with a consistency similar to a pulled pork sandwich); the Big Chops Burger and the You’re a Meatball Sub (both made with a mushroom-lentil combination).
“We wanted to be able to create that same ‘crave-ability’ that you get from your favourite conventional restaurants,” says Paquin, adding that the final menu is the product of extensive testing. “With every single dish, we started with probably 10 others that didn’t make the cut.”
The original plan for SweetChops was to open a small dine-in/takeout location. Those plans were undone by the global pandemic. SweetChops instead opened in April as a delivery-only business, operating out a dark kitchen in Toronto’s west end.
The plan, though, remains unchanged: for SweetChops to become what Paquin calls a “major player” in the foodservice industry, starting with Canada but eventually moving into the U.S. and beyond. The objective, he says, is for three locations within the first year, and 10-15 within the next two to three years.
It’s worth noting here that former marketing/agency types launching food-related ventures is not unheard of. Ice cream shop Sweet Jesus and Mexican street food restaurant La Carnita (both started by former OneMethod design director Andrew Richmond) and Smoke’s Poutinerie, started by AmoebaCorp founder/CEO Ryan Smolkin, are just two examples that come readily to mind.
Sweet Jesus was sold to International Franchising, the parent company of Yogen Früz and Pinkberry, in 2018, while Smoke’s is in the midst of a “Global Domination” strategy that will see it open locations not just across North America, but also Europe, South America and the Middle East.
Paquin, though, believes their food not only tastes good, but is good for humans and animals. “We really think there can be an impact made on human health, environmental health and animal health if more people would have more of their meals be plant-based,” he says.
“We’re not advocating for everyone to become a hard-core vegan overnight… but we represent the group of people who are making an effort to have more plant-based meals mixed into their diet.”
These so-called “flexitarians” have emerged as a significant driver in the rise of plant-based eating, with a 2019 University of Guelph study finding that nearly 85% of Canadians now eat at least one main meal a month containing no animal protein.
That has given rise to the term “meat minimalists,” with Paquin saying SweetChops’ specific objective is to cater to a fast-growing consumer segment that might be looking for a substitute to a meat-heavy menu.
Gilbert, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to completely leave his marketing background behind. One of the innovations for SweetChops he’s most proud of is personalized notes that are slipped into every customer order.
These hand-written notes might relate to the day’s events or maybe the order itself (“If they order fries with three dipping sauces, maybe we’ll say ‘You know how to dip,” says Gilbert) but they’re all specifically designed to brighten customers’ day.
They also come with an unexpected bonus for their creator. “I’m getting some hand strength from using that pen,” says Gilbert with a laugh. “It’s funny, you stop using a pen in favour of typing on a keyboard. My hand is jacked right now.”