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Next Level Burger

How 'no' becomes 'yes'

Next Level Burger (NLB), a plant-based burger chain, has a great origin story. It stars a young couple, Matt and Cierra de Gruyter, who met when they were 21 and 19 respectively, and worked in restaurants while in college. Both came from families with good scratch-cook moms making typical American food. Matt had never met a vegetarian until Cierra told him in 2009 that she was becoming one.

Cierra and Matt

As many have before him, he said, "Great. I will support you, but don't try to guilt me into becoming a vegetarian because it isn't ever going to happen." He had entered the Marine Corps out of high school and went to college afterward. He and Cierra bought a one-bedroom loft in Denver and he was bartending at a steakhouse. Their plan was set on graduate school for her and law school for him, but when she became pregnant with their son, everything changed. "I started thinking about skipping law school and finding a way to support my family-10 years ahead of our scheduled plan. At the steakhouse, I had regulars who were venture capital guys; all I knew was they had fancy suits and expensive shoes. They gave me their cards and said they thought we should talk. Turns out they were gas and oil private VCs. Ironically, my father and uncle had been in gas and oil and because of that, I had no interest in the industry." That being said, he got into oil and gas finance, making his first million before he was 30.

"In 2010, when I was 27 and eating 10 pounds of red meat a week, I lost my mom to breast cancer. She died on June 20 and we had a third birthday party for our son on June 24. I was watching this beautiful child and thinking if I can get him to 75, I've done my job. Cierra started exploring veganism in late 2009, and my response was, 'Honey, be careful not to become too extreme.' In the wake of my mother's passing, I began reading the many books Cierra had purchased as part of her exploration. I realized there's a lot of science behind plant-based eating, and the associations with cancer and heart disease were so high for the diet I was eating. Without saying a word to my wife, I decided to try plant-based eating for 30 days. It felt impossible, but just two weeks in I was sold. I felt light, clean, was sleeping great, stress was rolling off my back."

Almost right after their transition to plant-based diet, Cierra was thinking about starting a plant-based burger concept. Matt's reaction was, "Are you insane? The restaurant business is the only thing riskier than oil and gas!" The idea went from crazy to considered to yes. He resigned as Executive Vice President of his company, they sold their Laguna Niguel house and cars and moved to Cierra's home state of Oregon. By July 2014, they opened the doors on the first location. They now have 10 restaurants in six states. "We've fed millions of people from coast to coast, and in 2022 alone, helped to conserve over 300 million gallons of water and stopped 9.6 million pounds of carbon emissions from making their way into the atmosphere from doing things plant based and sustainably, and we're just getting started."


When Matt and Cierra met, she couldn't boil an egg. "And maybe she still can't," laughs Matt. "When we had our son, she became a master in the kitchen. She created the NLB menu in her mind and our kitchen. She's our Visionary Officer." They update the menu annually and have done something unusual. Although they've had supply chain issues (primarily with organic potatoes) and increased prices (things doubling in cost) in 2022, they made the decision to either reduce prices, like on their Classic burger, or freeze prices, like on their whole food-based Artisan burgers, but increasing the size of the patty from three to four ounces. A few prices, on shakes and salads, did increase. "We price on responsible margins. If someone chooses to invest in a meal with us, they need to feel they're getting value. And our goal has not been to veganize everyone, we simply want to make it accessible."

They're proud of the full spectrum menu they offer. "We offer a Beyond Burger that we hand form and add house seasoning. It has more sodium and is more of a treat, like onion rings or fries. But there's a part of the menu you could eat three times a day every day and be doing yourself a favor. Our Classic Burger has a bun made from sprouted whole grain, patty made from quinoa and mushrooms, organic onions. If you wanted to go one step better, you could leave off the garlic thyme mayo and use organic ketchup or mustard. It's an awesome menu that meets where you are that day. Maybe a treat is in order, or you want a salad that's 100% organic. The menu attracts everyone, but a lot of our guests are 50-65 and are looking for health benefits. It's great to see a family eating together making good memories over this healthy food. A new statistic says that by 2030 50% of the population will be diabetic. We're not even giving our kids the chance to avoid this with all the bad food choices out there. You can get the protein you need from a plant-based diet, it just has to be intelligent protein consumption with a diversity of amino acids. You can get those in abundance from a plant-based diet."

Maverick Cluckwich

While NLB has grown quickly, it's not as fast as Matt had foreseen. "Things have to grow at a pace that works for the company. We want to build a strong company, not just a big company. Cierra and I built and managed our first location; we've spent thousands of hours at our restaurants. In the first 30 days, we realized the idea that the customer is always right is wrong. Team members come first. They have to know you have their back, will tell them when they're doing great, and challenge them daily. That takes a certain type of leader-humble and confident. Growth comes from having the right amount of leaders. Not all our leaders are vegan, but they all care passionately about the key aspects of what we do, our planet, team, and communities. We focus on excellence and challenge ourselves to be the best we can be every day."

Connie Adams/May 2023

Next Level Burger

Washington locations

Ballard (opened January 2023)
1401 NW 46th St, Ste 126
Seattle, WA 98107

Roosevelt (opened August 2017)
1026B NE 64th St
Seattle, WA 98115

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