After more than a decade as a sports executive, Phil Horn thought he’d always work in the industry – at least until an entrepreneurial itch took hold.
Now, the former Sacramento Kings senior vice president of sales and services has gone from selling tickets and sponsorships to plant-based burgers as he looks to build a vegan fast-food empire.
For Horn, the decision to leave his role in sports and dive head-first into the Burger Patch operation along with his wife, Danea, was anything but easy. But Horn, a well-respected sales executive in the sports industry, found a passion and a wildly successful concept when it launched this spring and his hand was all but forced.
“I had no intention of leaving the Kings,” Horn said. “There were no signs of slowing down or limiting resources, I didn’t have a reason to leave. What happened was too much of an entrepreneurial spirit that was hard to keep quiet.”
He and his wife had lived a plant-based lifestyle for seven years when in 2017 a business idea started to form around a plant-based burger restaurant. Horn thought it could help show consumers that food can be tasty while also being better for the environment, human health and animal welfare.
“It was this idea of turning the familiar fast-food business model into a gateway into plant-based food,” he said.
As he spread the idea to others, it became quickly apparent he needed to do something with the idea.He ended up writing a 100-page business plan, but they realized they needed to test the concept and readied a day-long pop-up restaurant in about three weeks. Another successful pop-up a month later lead to the big decision.
“We opened to a line of about 200 people and it was consistently a three to four-hour wait for most of the day,” he said. “We knew we had something, we knew it was real and a year or two ahead of the times of where food was going. So we had to figure out if we wanted to do it and what it meant for my career.”
Horn had spent 14 years in sports, starting with the Los Angeles Clippers before a short stint with the Portland Trailblazers and his most recent stop with the Kings. The Kings had supported Horn throughout the entire process and allowed him to take a vacation in May 2019 to launch the physical flagship location of Burger Patch. But as he went back to ask for more vacation a second time, it was clear the path was laid out in front of him.
“The Kings were so wonderful to give me the opportunity to do that,” he said. “By the third time to ask for vacation, it was ‘I think I need to go do this.’ My heart was warmed by the support and I wanted to see where it could go. They developed a plan with me to work my way out and hand off responsibilities to well-trained staff.”
By mid-July, he was done with sports, fully aware of the staff he left behind was ready to make him proud as he looked to follow his new passion.
For many a career in sports can be so demanding it eventually makes them transition into a new industry, but Horn’s move into the plant-based food industry was not because of burnout. A recent FOS newsletter survey found 52% of respondents were looking to change jobs within a year.
For those chasing a career in sports, he said it’s important to understand the long hours and life-work balance it takes, but the rewards are just as strong.
“Sports are a job that will give back as much as you put into it, it’s so rewarding from the kids smiling to employees building their careers, it’s incredible,” Horn said. “If those types of things are inspiring for you to get out of bed, it doesn’t matter the work you have to put in, or the energy you put into it; it will fuel you.”
While the decision to leave sports was difficult, it’s a move Horn had to make, lest he always wondered what if? Now, Burger Patch is moving forward, with a concession spot within the Kings’ Golden 1 Center. Horn said other Northern California Burger Patch locations are soon likely, with the ultimate dream of franchises next to “the favorite fast-food chains across the country.”
“It was hard not to; I have this fire that’s constantly burning, I see that next idea in front of me and this one was so obvious because it hit on so many levels,” Horn said. “I feel fortunate it’s worked out as well as it has to make a second career. I’m 40 when starting a second career – it’s not something everybody is probably willing to do and taking a giant financial risk to do so.
“But I truly live by if you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, the rewards will find you.”