Los Angeles Times

Ethan Brown went vegan, but missed fast food. So he started a revolution

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone likes to think of himself as a "not preachy vegetarian." He doesn't eat meat, but tends to keep his views to himself.

So he was wary when asked by Kleiner Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm and a backer of his social-media platform, to help vet an investment in an unusual meatless burger start-up. It was led by an entrepreneur he never heard of: Ethan Brown.

"My first thought was, 'Oh boy, some kind of hippie guy who is going to preach about how mean eating animals is,' " Stone recalls thinking before the 2011 meeting.

It didn't quite turn out that way. Instead, he met a former fuel-cell industry executive with an MBA and a sweeping business plan.

"It was immediately apparent that he was massively ambitious. So this was no novelty food thing that was going to into the freezer section next to the silly products," Stone says. "This was a guy who from the beginning was saying, 'We are going to be in McDonald's.'"

Stone returned to Kleiner Perkins with a ringing endorsement and a question: Can I get in on this too?

That startup was Beyond Meat, whose initial public offering rocked Wall Street last year, revving up an astounding cultural shift that has put bean-based burgers on the menu at fast-food outlets better known for their industrial-grade meat and fries.

That level of change, as with any revolution, takes dreamers who can imagine a world well beyond the present, as well as pragmatists who know how to get things done. Brown, a lean and bearded 6-foot-5 vegan, is a bit of both.

The 48-year-old proselytizes a carefully calculated "flexitarian" pitch that goes down well in an age of better burgers and planetary anxiety. There is no need to avoid leather products, like he does, to get healthy and stave off global warming. People can just "eat more of what they love" - as in a Beyond Burger smothered with their favorite fixings, even if there's still steak in their grocery cart.

Scolding customers doesn't make sense, Brown says, when what they really need is better choice.

"I loved things like fried chicken, loved things like burgers. And then someone comes into the scene and starts telling you it's bad for your health, bad for the environment, bad for the animals," he says. "Everyone's on their own journey.

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