Vegan meets tech

Smart kitchens, a public offering, data optimization and a bunch of new (small) stores. What the heck is Globally Local cooking up?

Photo: Globally Local co-founders Vasiliki and James McInnes

VEGANS, VEGETARIANS AND omnivores alike in the city likely know of Globally Local — the vegan fast-food concept that for years nipped around the edges of the London food scene, first with a food truck, then as playful antagonists at Ribfest, and later with a couple restaurant locations (one downtown, one in the east end).

Popular for their almost freakishly convincing riffs on established fast-food items like the Big Mac, by the time they opened a restaurant in downtown Toronto in 2019, it seemed like Globally Local was on a steady, upward trajectory.

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Recently, however, Globally Local has been a quieter ­presence in London. Their east-end location on Highbury Avenue has been closed for a while, and in March, they announced that they’d be closing their original Dundas Street unit and moving to a new spot on Commissioners Road.

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But what might have been interpreted as a retreat from downtown was more of a staging for a much larger ­corporate expansion: a merger with Vancouver-based Black Lion Capital and the subsequent forming of Globally Local Technologies Inc., a public listing on the TSX Venture Exchange announced in mid-April and a pivot in identity away from vegan fast-food company to a technology ­company that happens to be in the food business.

Curious minds started to wonder: What is Globally Local up to, anyways?

“Our plan, basically, is to do a massive expansion across North America,” co-founder James McInnes says. But not just any kind of expansion — the expansion that Globally Local is pitching is one based around automation, data, ­delivery and an adherence to the fast-food dogma that their menu items taste the same way, every time.

Vegan meets tech Globally Local Focus

Coupled with their sustainability mission, McInnes says, Globally Local is charting a new course for themselves and a new operating model for vegan food.

That expansion will be starting soon, with five locations across Southwestern Ontario (including the new location in London) set to be rolled out this year.

At the heart of it is their automated “smart kitchens,” which McInnes says can be run efficiently by a single person if need be.

“In traditional restaurants, you use the skills of a chef,” explains McInnes. “For us, everything is programmed and cooked in an automated way. We use this advanced cook-ing equipment to provide more consistent food and make it ­easier for us to train staff as well.”

“People make decisions on a dollar when it comes to fast food. A dollar’s huge in the fast-food industry” —James McInnes

Those kitchens, in turn, sit in small restaurants (at between 750 and 1,000 square feet, as McInnes estimates, they are the size of most one-bedroom apartments) that are “built for delivery and take-out, primarily.”

Their locations have been decided by going where the data points them. “They’re not 100 per cent ghost kitchens, but we position them to optimize for delivery,” McInnes says.

Like many of their products, Globally Local’s expansion vision hews closely to the existing fast-food business model, but with tweaks McInnes believes differentiate them and their food.

“A lot of the aspects of cooking food can be automated or mostly automated,” he says. “Other fast-food chains are trying to turn people into robots — we want to let robots do what robots do best and leave people to the soft skills and customer service.”

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For McInnes, this isn’t a new tech identity for the company as much as it is making the technology part of their work more visible.

“I would say that Globally Local has always been a technology company, at its core,” he says. “Fundamentally, I’m a technology expert” — he ran a software business before Globally Local — “and even though the technology wasn’t always apparent in the early days, it was always there. We always used online ordering systems, back when people weren’t using them, and we had an algorithm that would optimize delivery. It’s always been in the background.”

Where this really wants to pay off is in price. A helpful offshoot of kitchens that can run with one set of hands is that it brings your labour cost way down. Ditto with essentially controlling their own supply chain and all the ingredients they make themselves.

“People make decisions on a dollar when it comes to fast food,” observes McInnes, saying Globally Local is aiming to bring their products in at a cheaper price point than their meaty counterparts. “A dollar is huge in the fast-food industry.”

With the first stages of the ambitious expansion set to roll out soon — stores will be opening in Waterloo, Hamilton, Vaughan, London and Toronto’s east end — there’s hope that Globally Local can prove to be a major player in a sector that hasn’t always taken an inspired approach towards plant-based diets. It could start to change this, and tap into a demand for more sustainable, environmentally friendly fast-food options. McInnes is under no illusions about what that will take.

“We have to put flavour first,” he says. “Because, basically, if you are going to eat a plant-based meal and it tastes better — that’s such a disruptive thing that’s happening.” Vegan meets tech Globally Local Focus Kieran Delamont

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