Malibu’s Burgers is the brainchild of Darren Preston, aka Danny Malibu. Photo: Pete Rosos

Up until recently, on Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, hungry customers meandered along Grand Avenue waiting for a black-painted school bus — the Malibu’s Burgers food truck — to pull up and take their orders. Malibu’s Burgers specializes in all-vegan fast-food: huge, whopping burgers made with meatless proteins like Impossible burger patties, fried “chicken” tenders and faux bacon, dripping with sauces and oozing with dairy-free “cheese;” creamy dairy-free milkshakes; and indulgent fries and tater tots loaded with toppings.

Over the past weekend, the black school bus went on the fritz and has officially been retired. It’s unfortunate, but not dire, because if all goes as planned, those same hungry customers will be stopping by a storefront in the near future instead of a mobile location to pick up Malibu’s vegan eats. In June, after a successful GoFundMe campaign, Malibu’s Burgers raised enough funds to open its own brick-and-mortar spot. The Malibu’s Burgers restaurant will be at 3905 Piedmont Ave.

A matter of influence

People eat with their eyes first, and in its early days, Malibu’s Burgers easily gained a following through Instagram, where they post photos of their bodacious burgers — 300 followers blossomed quickly to 2,000; today they have nearly 11,000 followers.

One of the people who’s championed and reposted Malibu’s Burgers was Sam Fugate, co-owner and head coffee roaster at Timeless Coffee, a popular vegan cafe with locations in Oakland and Berkeley.

A hand holds up a burger from Malibu's Burger, made with two meatless patties, onion rings, vegan cheese, lettuce.
The Ghost Town Burger — Impossible patties, vegan cheese, onion rings and fake bacon on a sesame seed bun. Photo: Malibu’s Burgers

“I saw this incredible picture of a burger, fries and milkshake. Immediately my curiosity was piqued,” said Fugate. “We didn’t have that style of decadent vegan burgers, with caramelized onions, lots of gooey melted cheese and vegan bacon, in Oakland.”

That void in Oakland’s vegan burger scene was what prompted Darren Preston, aka Danny Malibu, to start his business in 2019. A year earlier, while traveling to San Diego, Preston stopped by an L.A.-based vegan burger chain and had a burger that was unlike any he had in the Bay Area.

“When I got to the front of the line, I asked the guy, ‘When are you going to open a location in Oakland?’ He told me, ‘Oh, we’re working on it.’”

At that moment, Preston’s mental wheels started turning. He could make his own vegan burger business in Oakland.

“I never thought about owning a restaurant, but I spend so much money on vegan food,” said Preston. “I should give it a shot.”

By the time he reached San Diego, Preston had filed for an employer identification number, paid for the incorporation of the business and came up with the name.

The making of Malibu

Preston had set up the business, but he still hadn’t done the important work — creating the menu. He jumped all in, experimenting with vegan products and ingredient combinations. Preston tasked his then-fiancé (now-wife and co-owner), Natasha Fernández-Pérez, to taste his creations to help him perfect his recipes.

He also hit up his best friend, Wahid Brown, with whom he ran another business several years ago. In 2009, Preston and Brown launched Instant Classic Standard, a clothing design company with a financial backer, but personality conflicts with that backer caused the friends to close up shop a few years later. It was around this time, Preston, a New York native, created his alter ego, Danny Malibu.

Darren Preston (left) with business partners, his wife Natasha Fernandez and best friend Wahid Brown. Photo: Pete Rosos

“While working on the clothing line, I managed a few rappers,” said Preston. “One of the rappers asked me what’s my rap name? I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You got to have a rap name, you can’t be called Darren.’ At the time, I was driving to Malibu and I liked the name Danny. I said, ‘My name’s Danny Malibu,’ and from that moment on, it stuck.”

Before becoming the food entrepreneur he is today, Preston pursued yet another path. In 2014, he formed a nonprofit youth mentoring program called Dare to Strive. The nonprofit ended up being more of a passion project, though. Preston worked three jobs to keep operations going, but after five years of funding struggles, burnout took hold.

“I was exhausted. I decided to drive for Uber full-time until I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” he explained.

Going brick-and-mortar

In spring 2019, Preston quit driving for Uber to devote 100% of his time to Malibu’s Burgers. Although he had originally envisioned starting as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, raising the financial capital for a permanent location was out of reach. A former business associate contacted Preston to offer a food truck.

With cash investments from Fernández-Pérez and Brown, Preston was able to get the operation going. Malibu’s Burgers had its grand opening in January 2020. The response was tremendous.

“We stood in line for three hours in the cold determined to get a burger, fries, milkshake and a three-bean salad.”

“We stood in line for three hours in the cold determined to get a burger, fries, milkshake and a three-bean salad,” said Fugate of its grand opening.

That excitement has continued to grow. The demand for Malibu’s Burgers has outgrown the limited space of its food truck, not to mention the added difficulty of parking and constant maintenance issues. Over the weekend, Preston posted on Instagram about how the black school bus finally kicked the bucket: “Hey folks, hate to do this again but the truck decided to electrocute me (@dannymalibu). We thought we solved the issues but found out the hard way. I didn’t know that you could actually turn crispy black like in the cartoons.”

In June, Preston floated the idea of a brick-and-mortar space on Instagram to see what reaction would be. “I posted a cartoon-drawn picture of a storefront, ‘Would you guys like to see us in a brick and mortar? That means milkshakes all day.’ It’s was very well-received,” said Preston.

While encouraged by the outpouring of support, doubt lingered about asking for money during the pandemic, a time of economic downturn for many people. It was his mother, Lourdes Marquez, that convinced Preston to set up a GoFundMe campaign for the permanent space. “What’s the worst that can happen. I don’t make any money,” Preston recalled. “I’ll just keep working.”

A gloved hand holds up a large burger stuffed with meatless chicken, vegan mac and cheese, faux bacon, lettuce and tomato from Malibu's Burgers.
Everything on Malibu’s Burgers’ menu is plant-based, including this burger with meatless fried “chicken,” vegan mac and faux bacon. Photo: Malibu’s Burger

On June 10, Malibu’s Burgers GoFundMe page went live. With more than 450 shares, including by Bay Area vegan stalwarts The Butcher’s Son and Timeless Coffee, the campaign exceeded expectations and its $75,000 financial goal.

“We were overwhelmed at the response and support. There were lots of tears,” said Preston. “I felt a lot of emotions at that moment, but most of all, I’m grateful people believed in us that much.”

Not yet in the new space (Preston and his partners will get the keys Aug. 1), and no longer with a working truck, Malibu’s Burgers has found help from their friends at Timeless Coffee once again. This weekend, Timeless Coffee’s Oakland location (4252 Piedmont Ave.) will host Malibu’s Burgers from 4-8 p.m., Friday through Sunday. Preston said he’s not yet sure where Malibu’s will be after this weekend, but said the best place to find its future pop-up locations — and updates about the restaurant — is on Facebook and Instagram.

Tamara Sherman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, whose features and profiles have been published in Berkeleyside, Bay Nature, and The Oakland Post. She occasionally does many things, but she is always planning a slow adventure in a beautiful landscape.

Tamara Sherman

Tamara Sherman is a freelance writer based in Oakland. Her features and profiles have been published in Berkeleyside, Bay Nature and The Oakland Post. She does many things, but she is always planning a...