Credit: Illustration by Brian Taylor

Chef Spike Mendelsohn, 42, runs a restaurant empire from his Bethesda headquarters. He launched PLNT Burger in Silver Spring in 2019 and has since added 12 more locations, crafted the menu for Vim & Victor at the new St. James Bethesda fitness center, and oversees several D.C. restaurants, including Good Stuff Eatery, Santa Rosa Taqueria and We, the Pizza. 

I’ve been in the kitchen since I was about 12 years old, so I’ve learned a lot. But when I was younger, I had a much more ego-driven style of management, and I think that maybe was born from training in the north of France, in a kitchen with a brigade of 60 chefs. It was an intense kitchen, with lots of yelling, and things would get thrown at you if you didn’t do something right. I kind of carried that into my own career. I used to be that chef, and it felt good to me for some awkward reason because I was getting respect. Maybe I liked the idea of having power. But it didn’t do justice to the business or the employees—it would do the opposite, and that was a big mistake.

Eventually I was able to conquer and learn from that over the course of many years. I learned our kitchen staff is like your second family and you have to treat every position with respect, whether you’re washing dishes or plating something or you’re the front-of-house manager—you have to really make an effort to make everyone feel comfortable at work. We run a vegan burger chain that has 13 locations, and we do a lot of culture training—we focus on it a lot. 

And you know, once we decided to focus on it, we saw so much more positive performance. There’s a lot of turnover in the restaurant business, but we started to see so much better job retention, keeping the same faces in our business, and I wish I would have done that earlier in my career. I wish I would have done that. 

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, you know. This new (planet-friendly snack) business that I’ve entered, Eat the Change, well, we had a product to develop: mushroom jerky. It was my first go-round doing that product line, and we just hit the market too soon. We really weren’t ready, both from packaging or taste point of view. But we were really hungry to get the product out there, and we worked a little bit too fast. That came back on us a bit. We learned to make sure when you hit the market with any product that you’re really ready and that you understand what you’re doing. 

An overarching lesson is that you make mistakes because most of the time you’ve taken some type of a risk. I invite risk in our companies, and I invite people to make mistakes. You learn a lot more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. That, to me, has always been a pillar. 


I’m not saying, “Hey everybody, take a bunch of risks and make a bunch of mistakes.” But when you make those mistakes, you really have to dig in and learn about them. That’s what I’ve learned about making a lot of small—and big—mistakes over my life: Don’t be so quick to just move on without studying what got you there, because that will earn you success the next time around.

This story appears in the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine.