On a hot afternoon on Piedmont Avenue — sitting in the car making sure the parking meter isn’t about to time out — you bite into a juicy, thick Malibu burger, a gift from the fast food gods. The tomatoes and lettuce are fruity and crisp, and the Follow Your Heart American cheese is melty and gooey. An order of Hella Hella fries is by your side, messy and creamy and crunchy, and there’s an Oatly ube chocolate milkshake in the cupholder, moisture pearling on the plastic cup. It’s both all-vegan and a majestic Americana In-N-Out phenomenon.
Darren Preston’s Malibu’s Burgers is as popular a Bay Area fast food restaurant as they come. He was inspired by East Bay vegan classic restaurants such as the now-closed Saturn Cafe and Herbivore, but he brought in that classic fast food feel of raw indulgence to skyrocket Bay Area vegan food to another dimension. In the last few years, though, Preston has explored every nook and cranny of the business’ possible future. Some days he thinks the business should close while the getting is good, as his mom’s Puerto Rican restaurant Casa Borinqueña recently followed that same path — although there lies a possibility of taking up residence in Malibu’s dining area. Other days he wants to open a second location, almost nabbing a space in Marin just a few months ago.
He knows bringing on a few strategic partners could help him expand. But taking his vision and creativity — not to mention those ube chocolate shakes — into a proper business plan would be paramount for Malibu’s to hit the next level. Despite his business’ big numbers and its popularity on TV, he says those historic inequities played a part in his falling in with predatory lenders. While filing for bankruptcy protection did bring in his fanbase to support, the mar on his record has hurt his ability to access loans even further. The market’s changed post-COVID, Preston says, but more than that being a Black- and Puerto Rican-owned business means he’s at a disadvantage when it comes to tapping traditional financing instruments his competitors might. “We [Black business owners] suffer from having a lack of resources,” Preston says. “I’m just learning as I go. Even my own mother is figuring it out, and she’s my number one supporter.”
But he’s glad to think his story can be used for good. Bianca Blomquist, the Northern California outreach director for the Small Business Majority, is using Malibu’s tale in a Senate hearing about predatory lending as it impacts Black Americans. This year, the organization’s agenda prioritized BIPOC owners accessing capital, like extending the impacts of the Small Business Lending Disclosure and Broker Regulation Act. “They tried to destroy us,” Preston says of his lenders. “I’m proud we were able to come out of that.”
Looking down the road, the owner says he’s just hunting for the funding to bring his burgers to another Bay Area county. Another vegan burger business offered to buy him out, but Preston says the offer was so low it fanned the flames of Malibu’s all the more. He understands who he is: He’s a father, vegan for more than a decade, and a proud entrepreneur. He doesn’t want to get a 9-to-5, and the Bay would certainly be worse off if he did. “I am Mr. Malibu,” Preston says. “This is something that comes from me. I definitely want to expand.”
Malibu’s Burgers (3905 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland) is open noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, and noon to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday.