The first thing my six-year-old daughter notices about Kevin Smith is that the color of his blazer matches the largely purple color scheme of his pop-up restaurant, Mooby’s. We’re seated in one of its booths, looking out at Santa Monica Blvd., which is less busy than it should be on a late Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles.
Before Smith sits down with us, he’s making the rounds, greeting reporters, employees, friends, and fans. He bumps elbows—the unofficial COVID handshake—with a few. He even goes in for a hug to some. His real-life presence is the opposite of his brooding “Silent Bob” character. He’s reassuring, like a small town mayor showing up on the scene of a local disaster. Even through safety masks and the mist of hand sanitizer spray, everyone inside the restaurant looks relieved at his arrival.
Next, my daughter notices his shoes. They’re bright yellow. He has denim knee-length shorts on. She giggles. It’s a bit of a self-imposed uniform, I tell her; he’s frequently photographed in this ensemble and its variations. Like the Steve Jobs turtleneck, Smith’s blazers and backward-facing ball cap offers fans some comfort in their predictability, especially in these tense early days of public re-openings in Los Angeles. It’s also just days after some of the biggest Black Lives Matter protests in the city. If we need anything right now, it’s a Gen-X anti-hero to remind us of the powers of (vegan) lasagna. Everything is going to be okay. Or maybe not. But perhaps it’s just best to have a lean up against a wall and wait and see what happens.
I run through Smith’s iconic films as I’m surrounded by set pieces and props, trying to explain to my daughter that I grew up watching “Clerks” and “Mallrats” on repeat. But how do you explain to a six-year-old with a fist full of chocolate-covered pretzels in her face that these movies defined a generation now struggling to make sense of a world sandwiched between a pandemic and political uprising? Why was “Silent Bob” silent, she asks of Smith’s iconic character. “Does he talk in real life?” I explain that these days he is no longer quietly judging humanity. He’s got a lot to say. “About pretzels?” she asks. “Sort of,” I respond. “But it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Mooby’s Comes to Life
Mooby’s made its first appearance in 1999’s “Dogma,” and in a number of Smith’s films after that including “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”, “Clerks II”, and “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.” The fictitious restaurant was brought to life in April. It launched online for takeout during peak COVID quarantine. And if the recent interest is an indicator of how well the chain might do if it expanded beyond the pop-up, Smith’s got a billion-dollar idea on his hands: demand for the meals was so high that it crashed the Postmates delivery app. Twice. There were more than 3,000 orders on the first day. The team could only fill a fraction of those. But now, with the temporary brick-and-mortar location, Mooby’s will feed as many hungry fans as it possibly can, and it’s also raising money for charity while doing it.
The initial takeaway launch sent funds to No Us Without You, which helps to feed undocumented hospitality workers during the pandemic. The first week at the pop-up location sent funds to Clean Up South Central in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across Los Angeles.
“We wanted to help out however we could,” Smith says.
Mooby’s is an immersive experience. Parked in the middle of West Hollywood, the pop-up restaurant opened its doors on June 18th, following all state recommended distancing guidelines. The pop-up is handled by Derek Berry, who’s used the location for other pop-ups including a Breaking Bad-themed Los Pollos Hermanos last year. Tickets to Mooby’s cost $30 and score you a tour around some of his film’s most iconic props (the “I Assure You We’re Open” sign from “Clerks”, the original “Mooby’s” menu.)
Admission is available only through Tock, and includes a “Moo Main” such as the vegan lasagna sandwich, the triple-burger Cow Tipper (made with Beyond Meat), or a vegan Egga Mooby Muffin (made with Beyond Sausage and JUST vegan egg). Each meal comes with a side of onion rings, or Smith’s favorite: Hater Totz. Chef Royce Burke of Secret Lasagna developed the minimalist menu.
Saved By Fast Food
The logistics of the restaurant business are a bit over my daughter’s head. She starts losing interest until Smith mentions Veggie Grill. “I literally eat there every day,” he says. My daughter’s eyes light up; it’s her favorite restaurant, too. “I love the [Beyond] burger!” she tells him. He nods in agreement. “I love the burgers and the nachos, too,” he tells her.
The Veggie Grill-Kevin Smith romance is script-worthy: He once paid a fan to bring him a Veggie Grill meal to Chicago’s O’Hare airport because he wouldn’t have enough time between flights to go himself. He drove from Canada to Washington State (about three hours) to load up on the chain’s Beyond Burgers while shooting on location. He even attended the chain’s staff holiday party.
While his love for Veggie Grill is buoyed by a zealous appetite for fast food, it’s a bit more layered than that. My daughter, now excited to meet someone as enthusiastic about Veggie Grill as her, asks him about how he went vegan.
“I got really sick,” he tells her. He’s speaking about a heart attack in 2018 that nearly killed him at just 47. Before the heart attack, Smith’s weight was nearly double his current size. During his recovery, he read Penn Jillette’s book, which had him eating nothing but potatoes for weeks. It helped him quickly shed weight, but was unsustainable long-term. Smith’s daughter, 21-year-old actor Harley Quinn Smith, encouraged him to go vegan. After being raised without dairy, she made the switch in 2014.
“When Jen [Smith’s wife] got pregnant with Harley, she grossed out on eggs and meat,” he said. “And when Harley was born, Jen was like, ‘we’re not gonna give this kid milk.’”
Smith was worried. “She’s a baby. And babies get milk.”
But Jen convinced him. Harley would be breast fed and then would drink plant-based milk after that.
“So this is 1999. Everyone in my family back east was like, ‘what kind of crazy ass new ageism is this? If this kid’s not going to drink milk, what’s going to happen to her? Is she going to have hollow bones?’ But she’s never had dairy and she’s fine. And she saved my life.”
The Future Is Vegan
Veggie Grill came to Smith’s rescue, quite literally; there he can eat all the “fast” food he loves without the heart attack risks that come from eating animal products. It’s been more than two years since the heart attack and Smith has kept most of the weight off. That’s not an easy feat, especially for someone closing in on 50. But Smith looks every bit healthy. And more than that, he seems unconcerned with his dietary choices, resolved that he’s found a diet that works.
His love for Veggie Grill may also deserve part of the credit for the Mooby’s menu. Smith’s a big fan of the Beyond Burgers on the Veggie Grill menu. The popular burgers are featured in Mooby’s lasagna sandwich and the Cow Tipper. Chef Burke says he likes working with the vegan meat. “It’s just so versatile,” he says. But he’s also a fan of vegetables and letting their natural flavors shine. He’s used the Mooby’s menu as a way to “sneak” in veggies. Smith’s a vocal vegetable-hater, but Burke gets carrots, zucchini, and mushrooms into that veggie lasagna.
But the proof is in the pudding. Or, in Mooby’s case, a triple-stacked vegan burger. And while the menu offers both vegan and traditional options, interest in the vegan menu continues to climb as it does for other restaurants. The fans are all-in, ordering to go and eager to visit even during these risky times.
Mooby’s is a success in more ways than one. But despite the good fortune at a time when many restaurants are closing down, Smith doesn’t see himself in the restaurant business long-term. He’s leaving that to the experts. But he does have some advice: “Plant-based is the fastest growing sector of the food service industry,” he says. “Meat is expensive and that’s a big part of your overhead. Cheese is an expensive product. The bottom line [profit margin] is going to be way better for a vegan restaurant,” he says.
“And people want plant-based options,” he insists. “You can’t throw a rock [in Los Angeles] without hitting a plant-based restaurant these days. It’s the future.”
The Mooby’s pop-up runs through July. Visit the website for more information.