When Jeremy Robinson-Leon opened his drive-through restaurant Moonburger in Kingston last October, the idea had immediate franchise potential. The concept? To bring delicious, no-fuss, (plant-based) fast food to the masses. “We really wanted to create a concept for the mainstream and normalize the idea of a plant-based burger by dropping a fast-food spot between two gas stations.” Robinson-Leon says. “On any day, the line has a pickup truck followed by a Tesla followed by a construction van followed by a Subaru. Whatever else you want to say about what cars mean about people, it is very gratifying to create something that people across the spectrum can enjoy. ”
The savvy former consultant to Shake Shake knows a thing or two about the industry. He didn’t lean heavily into the fact that he was using Impossible Beef in the burgers—he wanted to quietly do his part for the planet while letting the product speak for itself. And it does—with a perfect blend of caramelized and crispy fried onions, pickles, special sauce, and American cheese on a potato roll that is as unpretentious as it is tasty. “The interest in what we’re doing and excitement has been so far beyond what I could’ve imagined,” says Robinson-Leon. “I felt like we had something really good to offer, but it was totally new. You don't know until you open. It’s been magical.”
The team, which has grown to about 20 employees, works like a well-oiled machine with streamlined systems, good camaraderie, and high morale. “I wake up every day excited to be with this group,” Robinson-Leon says. “Any fast food job is incredibly difficult and challenging, and anyone who does that job deserves to be well-compensated, respected, and supported by society, because it’s no joke being on the line. This team comes together in such a wonderful way to solve the daily challenges that inevitably arise to keep getting food out the window.”
In October 2021, our colleague wrote of the drive-through, “The menu is small, the branding is tight, and it feels like the prototype for a fast-food chain. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw a Moonburger at Yankee Stadium or LaGuardia in five years. Moonburger feels inevitable.”
Indeed the first inklings of this have arrived—not with an airport franchise quite yet, but still, tellingly, with a location in the humming college town of New Paltz, where ecologically minded and ever-hungry SUNY New Paltz students are sure to gobble up the plant-based burgers, seasoned fries, and dairy-free milkshakes. Still Robinson-Leon is humble about the growth, denying that plans for the chain were a part of the project from the outset. “I always look at this as step-by-step. We take nothing for granted,” he says. “If the people are excited about Moonburger, who are we to hold back? So we looked at a variety of towns and cities in this region. We heard from lots of people in New Paltz asking for Moonburger.”
The Vassar grad has a tender spot for the small village across the river from his alma mater. “[As a student,] you would go out to spots in Poughkeepsie, of course, and if your parents were visiting you might go to Rhinebeck,” he says. “But when you wanted to go out with friends for something fun or on a date, you’d go across the river to New Paltz.”
Moonburger’s future home at 87 Main Street, New Paltz, previously Mexicali Blue, is sandwiched between P&Gs and Manny’s Art Supplies, right in the heart of the village. The space is undergoing a full gut renovation under Danielle Epstein, design director of Home Studios and a personal friend of Robinson-Leon’s. (The firm also designed the Kingston Moonburger exterior as well as Rosie General in the Rondout.) “Home Studios mostly does hip, very-high budget fine-dining spots,” he says. “They don't do fast food projects like this, but that’s part of what makes it so cool—for them to be applying their aesthetic to fast food. It feels at once very classic and nostalgic but also very future-forward and unique.”
The New Paltz location will be the first interior Moonburger space that guests can enter (no drive-through component here), which adds a new dimension to the design as well as the user-experience. Still, take-out will be the name of the game here—the space is small and in-house seating will be limited to a handful of counter stools. In New Paltz, Robinson-Leon plans to roll out online pre-ordering for pick-up, kiosks for streamlined onsite ordering, and, eventually, delivery—sure to be a hit with cramming college kids.
Another thing sure to make Moonburger a fast favorite? The prices. “Impossible meat is really expensive, so that is an inherent limitation,” Robinson-Leon says. “But it’s really important to me that we just continually look for ways to make menus as accessible as possible. Our goal was to get our burger price to be in line with a Five Guys single. At the point that we launched, that was $6.89, and that’s where we have stayed.”
Strategic bulk buying is part of the reason for the limited menu, but generally Robinson-Leon is of the do-a-few-things-really-well ilk. He grows when he can afford to, where there is demand, and with a tight selection that he can stand behind. That brief menu is likely to stay the same in New Paltz, though Robinson-Leon hints at future limited-time specials (like the current pumpkin spice shake) and collabs (like the recent Moonburger x Moonrise Bagels’ Smash Bagel).
There is no target opening date yet for the New Paltz location, nothing beyond a vague-but-confident “by spring!” but the demo is done and construction is underway. So stay tuned to the Moonburger Instagram account for updates.
“If you told me when I was in school 20 years ago that I’d be opening a restaurant in New Paltz, it would’ve sound totally outrageous, but it feels a little bit full circle. I really want to make sure Moonburger becomes part of the fabric of town, it’s a real honor to be there.”