A Mr. Charlie’s “Frowny Meal” comes in a cartoon red and ka-POW! yellow box, just like the better-known branding of a certain fast-food juggernaut. At the Los Angeles-based company’s location in SF’s Union Square though, there are no grilled beef, pink slime or dairy products—because Mr. Charlie’s isn’t a clone of McDonald’s but a plant-based alternative to it.
Inside, it feels more modern than even that hipster Mickey D’s on 24th and Mission streets, with club music at a high volume and two-person pods where people wait for their order. There are knockoffs of Andy Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe, alongside riffs on his Campbell’s Soup cans (in “Fun,” “Community” and “Brave” flavors, but also “Misfit” and “Fart”). A cow stands next to a sign that reads, “Stop Staring at Me Like I’m a Piece of Meat.”
Serving "Not a Hamburger" and "Not a Chicken Sandwich," the whole project feels like a tongue-in-cheek scheme from Adbusters, the anti-consumerist Canadian magazine that inspired the Occupy movement. It’s certainly begging for a cease-and-desist from Ronald McDonald’s highly litigious legal department. But this is no prank. While its prices may be a bit higher than that of a famously affordable Happy Meal, Mr. Charlie’s wears its animal-loving heart on its saving-the-world sleeve.
A Frowny Meal—a vegan burger with pickles, onion, ketchup, mustard and optional vegan cheese, plus four soy-based nuggets and a drink—isn’t designed to make you feel sad. It’s supposed to evoke one of the joys of an ordinary American childhood with a reminder that sometimes, everybody has a reason to frown.
Eight years ago, Mr. Charlie’s co-founder and brand director Taylor McKinnon was homeless and living in Los Angeles. He’d had a traumatic childhood in London, filled with bullying, abuse and family financial woes, and although he wasn’t struggling with addiction, he had hit rock bottom.
“I had nowhere to go,” McKinnon told The Standard. “I was so scared and very suicidal—my mind was crazy.”
He got involved with the Dream Center, an organization affiliated with the Pentecostal church that works with people in recovery, domestic violence survivors and other people experiencing a crisis. After working in food prep, a friend gave him $1,000 with a note saying, “Love gift.”
“I will never forget it,” McKinnon said. “He said, ‘It’s your time to get back on your feet and make something of yourself.’ I was overwhelmed with love, and I didn’t want to kill myself anymore.”
Around then, he met his future wife, which led to a chance meeting with future Mr. Charlie’s co-founder Aaron Haxton and, later, the third leg of that triangle, Charlie Kim. Kim runs Aria, the hip-hop-inflected Korean fried chicken chain that began with a genuine hole-in-the-wall on Larkin Street in the Tenderloin. Agreeing that they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but they all had a good feeling about it, they decided to join the plant-based revolution with the first Mr. Charlie’s on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles.
The serendipity of this chain of events lends credence to McKinnon’s adherence to a spiritual strain of capitalism in which anything is possible with an open heart and some elbow grease. Mr. Charlie’s is named partly after Kim, a chef, but also after a song of the same name.
“I’m a big Grateful Dead fan, and I heard Bob Weir say a lyric from ‘Mr. Charlie,’” McKinnon said of what was going through his mind when he met Kim. “He said, ‘Hey, let’s be partners.’ I Facetimed Aaron, and Aaron said, ‘Go with the flow.’ I showed him Charlie, and we shook hands.”
“Mr. Charlie told me so” is the refrain in the Dead song, but it was McKinnon who told Kim that there would be no chicken at their restaurant—no meat products at all, in fact. While still hammering out the business plan, McKinnon visited the Dream Center and met a formerly unhoused woman named Susana Sanchez who had two children.
“She was incredible,” McKinnon said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we go into the deep end together and launch this concept? Let’s make everyone who works for Mr. Charlie’s be from a broken background in some way, and love them so they can be a blessing to other people.’”
Sanchez became the hiring manager, partnering with the Dream Center in LA and the ambitious yet somewhat controversial nonprofit Urban Alchemy in SF. This is where Mr. Charlie’s starts to feel less like a thumb in McDonald’s eye than a kiss on a boo-boo. McKinnon is the embodiment of a #blessed Angeleno, but his desire to help others while healing Mother Nature is genuine.
In March 2022, Lizzo posted a TikTok of herself enjoying a Frowny Meal, and everything blew up from there.
Mr. Charlie’s isn’t trying to reinvent the fast-food wheel, but McKinnon says there’s a therapist available to the 20 or so employees if the pace of their work starts to affect them. At one point, they ran out of product and had to drive some up Interstate 5 just to keep the doors open.
“We had to make an emergency delivery,” McKinnon said. “San Francisco ate all our food!”
Business appears brisk: When The Standard visited the Union Square location in late January, the lunch rush was indeed slammed. A pop into the McDonald’s location across Sutter Street revealed a much quieter restaurant. None of the employees there had yet had a Frowny Meal—at least, not according to one cashier.
Mr. Charlie’s plans to expand, exporting Frowny Meals first to New York and then Australia. In spite of the company’s famously monstrous-sounding tagline, “Billions and Billions Served,” McKinnon claims never to have heard of McDonald’s. It was Haxton who created Mr. Charlie’s look and feel, he added, focusing entirely on making it feel tireless and familiar, like the circus.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, when asked if he’s afraid of getting sued. “Our logo is inspired by something very personal: It’s OK to be sad sometimes.”
Mr. Charlie told you so.
428 Sutter St., SF
Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]