Kevin “Kev” Arca and Sha Khorshidpanah went from the Tesla showroom to the streets of Los Angeles, bringing the VOWburger brand of sustainability and conscious eating to hungry diners across LA. From delicious eats to their one-for-one meal model, these two are making an impact on their community and paving the way for others to do the same. We had the opportunity to sit down with Kev and hear about their journey.
How did you and Sha first meet?
It’s funny – my first role at Tesla was in the showroom where I met Sha, and so we kind of worked our way up together. He’s still at Tesla while running our branding, marketing, and taglines; which is like his bread and butter. I run operations, finance, and basically anything day-to-day out here in the restaurant. He helps with partnerships and expansions, too.
How did you guys move from working at Tesla to “Hey, let’s start a restaurant?”
It was never the plan to open a restaurant. We had always been passionate about sustainability, and we knew that plant-based was the right direction. We always had business ideas, but once we started talking about this one, it just kind of stuck. Something about it. We also figured it was a good time in the market, as timing is pretty key with any business. We’re still relatively early in the plant-based market; most of our customers still eat meat. It’s an opportunity to do a little of something we did years ago with Tesla, which was to change the perception of people’s minds to something more eco-friendly.
If you compare our burger to a traditional animal-meat burger, you’ll see that we have already saved over a million square feet of land for grazing and over 400,000 gallons of water.
We are trying to present this in a non-preachy way, you know? Come in for the good food, stay for the good impact. There are no hormones, no cholesterol, and our last way of giving back is the meal-for-meal model. Every meal purchased, a meal is donated to the LA food bank. We just passed 5,000 meals in less than four months, so it definitely adds to our purpose.
Do you think that the goal of education and sustainability was first, or was the food first? Did you guys always like cooking?
Even a few years ago, I wasn’t aware of how grazing and farming affected the planet. A lot of people don’t know. We experienced that same pushback at Tesla – like when you’re pitching an electric car in 2013, most people are like, ‘Great, an electric car. Whatever.’ So for us, it started with changing the way people think and figuring out how to execute. I was putting all the pieces together from suppliers to vendor management, and then me and my mom literally made the sauces in our kitchen.
The fun part is taking on the challenge of running a business and understanding a totally new industry, learning how to make our vision work, and putting our own spin on it. At Tesla, we had this joke of doing things on ‘Tesla Time,’ so while it takes everyone else 3 years, Tesla would do it in 4 months. Here, people were telling us, ‘Oh, give it like a year or two before you really get up and running’, and we were like, ‘no.’
So you did it on the ‘Tesla Time’!
Yes, we did it on Tesla Time, we signed the lease and two weeks later were open for business. It was learning, but also we put our own spin on the restaurant game, which speaks to our background.
Do you have a goal for where you want to see the business in two years?
50 locations before the end of 2021.
That’s impressive, very specific! You knew exactly what you we’re going to say.
Yes, we have our goals. And franchising is a great way for us to do that. We are working with a franchise company right now, so within four months, we’ll be an official franchise. Hopefully another two months after that, we’ll start selling franchises. So, it’s moving fast.
Have you changed any minds, has anyone come in here not into it and you gave them a new perspective?
Yeah, so many times it has happened where people come in and realize it’s vegan, and they walk out. People even come in to take Instagram photos of our neon signs and don’t buy anything. One time I was working right here on my computer, and a group of six Texans came in, and they were so upset when they found out that it was vegan, as they were turning around, I asked them what’s going on and they say ‘We found out it’s vegan so we are going to In-N-Out’, and I asked if they had ever tried one and they said no but we’re not into it, so I said ‘How about this, I make you a burger, you know a sample for each of you, and if you don’t like it, no hard feelings. Go to In-N-Out. But if you like it, you stay and you have a meal with us.” And they were like, okay I guess we have nothing to lose, and sure enough, they took a bite, they loved it, and they stayed to have a big meal.
So it’s very fun to change minds. If people give us the opportunity, I mean my parents were the first example. Being from Peru, vegan is not in the nomenclature or the vocabulary there. My dad ate it and said ‘this tastes like a burger! What’s going on here!’ So that is a very fulfilling part of it, you get to change the way that people think about something that does not have the best reputation. It’s important for us.
Do you have any advice for anyone else in your position right now, starting a restaurant in a category that might require more education?
Yeah, a couple of things. Definitely do your homework and don’t take it lightly, but at the same time, don’t wait for perfection before starting. Kind of like what we were talking about, we could have easily waited for the mural or the screens, for all these things to be perfect before opening but we never would have opened.
I lived in my computer at a coffee shop for months researching the market, researching what people want right now, how do we make this work, what is our brand, what is our vision…
…but the other part was okay, you have enough of the information, don’t wait until you have 100% of the information to go for it, and don’t be afraid to take that risk. Because surely enough you’re gonna go for it, you’re gonna make mistakes but you’re gonna learn from those mistakes, versus waiting until you have 100% of the information which usually never happens. That would be my advice. Definitely do your homework, but don’t wait until you have all the answers. You have to learn on the go as well.
519 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
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Images by Various | Editing by Kristen Reames