His legions of fans love him for it. They watch his flicks, buy his merch, and turn out at his various live podcast sessions. For more than a week now, his Phoenix fans have been making trips to The Van Buren for Smith's Mooby’s pop-up restaurant that’s taken over the front portion of the downtown Phoenix music venue.
An IRL version of the fictional fast-food chain seen in such Smith films as Dogma and Clerks II, the pop-up has been serving up humorously named items as Cow Tipper hamburgers, Cock Smoker chicken sandwiches, and Hater Totz. (Vegan versions of the selections have been available, owing to Smith’s conversion to a plant-based diet after his heart attack.) It features artwork and displays inspired by his films, including a pair of towering inflatable versions of Jay and Silent Bob (arguably his most iconic characters).
Phoenix New Times got a chance to speak with Smith via telephone recently in conjunction with Mooby’s visit to the Valley. We discussed how the pop-up came about, why Smith digs Phoenix, and how his heart attack inspired the plot of Clerks III.
New Times: You've brought a lot of your stuff to Phoenix over the years. What do you dig about our town?
The proximity to California makes it ideal. [Phoenix] has always been very welcoming to us. Number one, it's a cute place, looks cool. And as a big fan of Alice growing up, I was very familiar with Arizona before I actually got to step into the state. But I can't think of a specific place off the top of my head where I'll go, "Oh, I love to fucking go there."
Actually, the actual restaurant sign they used in the intro of Alice is still around in Phoenix. It's about a mile away from The Van Buren.
Are you shitting me? Oh my god, I had no fucking clue. Are they still open?
Yeah. It's still called Mel's Diner and has the old sign and everything.
How weird. I never imagined I'd be competing with a childhood hero. But thank God it's only a week, or I'd collapse from the guilt of it all.
Back when you were working behind the counter at the Quick Stop in New Jersey in the early '90s, did you ever think "fast food entrepreneur" was in your future?
I didn't think it would be part of my portfolio or C.V., 'cause I didn't think I'd ever have a portfolio or C.V. I thought I'd be a retail kid my whole life, because that was the only thing I was really any good at. And I loved convenience stores because they had them down to a science. So I never even worked in fast food.
When I wrote Clerks II, which was set in a Mooby's, it was all about the experience of eating in fast-food [restaurants] my entire life and never about working there. So I didn't see this one coming. But, to be fair, I haven't seen any of it coming. Even the things that I tried for, like Clerks. I wanted to make Clerks, but I didn't think it would become what it did. And Mooby's has been the same thing, like this back-door entrepreneurial venture. That sounds sexier than I mean it, but it really turned into something where we could take it from place to place, like to a bunch of cities now. I think we've got the first six months of  lined up for us as well.
So, I didn't aim for it; I never dreamed it. When I was a kid working at convenience stores and also delis, I knew I could make a decent sandwich, so I always assumed, if nothing else, maybe I could own my own deli one day. But this is beyond my dreams.
Did you have a favorite fast food place growing up in Jersey?
Of course. We loved McDonald's growing up, but they built a Burger King on a hill in Atlantic Highlands in, like, 1979, so that was the closest fast food joint to us. Otherwise, you had to drive to Middletown to get McDonald's. Once they put in that Burger King, we started riding our bikes up there every day. That was a big thing at the time. There was no internet, let alone cable TV, so riding your bike to a Burger King was about fucking all you could do as a kid. I loved it.
And the Burger Kings have been the basis for [Mooby’s] in all my movies. The first one was in Dogma. That was a closed-down Burger King [near Pittsburgh]. The one that we shot for Clerks II was a closed-down Burger King. So we tend to use their building model as well.
Are the Mooby’s in your films the type of fast-food joints you would have loved as a kid?
Absolutely. I mean, for me, as long as the food was edible, I was there. And Mooby's is entirely edible, at least in the reality of the movies. In reality, of the real world, man, they've been able to make some nice food. [Los Angeles-based Chef Royce Burke] was the guy that created our menu out here. And it was based on the fake items from the menu in the movies.
But bringing that into the real world, like, you got to make it tasty. Otherwise, the whole thing fucking falls apart. Like it's a fun gimmick, in terms of like, "Hey, it's like just like in the movies," but you're in real life, and you can walk into Mooby's. But if the food sucks, it don't go anywhere. Because at the end of the day, if you're charging people 25 bucks or so for a sandwich and fries and a drink and stuff, you hope to God that they're going to walk out satisfied.
So Chef Royce has created food that we take the recipe to every place and duplicate it. And so far, it's been really tasty. So if this was the food in a fake movie that I was going to growing up, I would totally eat it. To be fair, I wasn't a very discerning fast-food kid. As long as it came in a wrapper, I would eat it.
Why did you want to have vegan items at the Mooby’s pop-ups?
We always have vegan stuff on the menu because I can't eat regular food anymore because I went vegan after the heart attack. So we started out here in Los Angeles doing the Cow Tipper sandwich, which is our multi-patty burger with Beyond Meat. Like the good folks at Beyond Meat got in bed with us, so suddenly, we were able to offer Beyond Meat versions of the Cow Tipper. Then we started doing vegan versions of the Egg-A-Mooby Muffin with an egg replacement and a cheese replacement and stuff and a Beyond Meat sausage. The Hater Tots are also vegan, and then everything else on the menu is for carnivores, for the folks that eat the real food and stuff.
We keep fucking around with ideas of [creating vegan versions] of our sandwiches, like our chicken sandwich called the Cock Smoker. That one makes me laugh because people have to order it. It's fun to say out loud. I've watched old ladies order it. It makes them giggle. It's hysterical. So I hope we get a vegan Cock Smoker as well, which is totally possible since they got chicken substitutes out there.
Do people who get the Hater Totz end up feeling like Fred Armisen did in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot?
God, I hope so. Look, if I was asked to pay this much for food, I better have fun eating it. You know what I'm saying? So there better be some huge Jay and Silent Bob components to make it all worth it and stuff. In terms of the artwork, it's fun when you walk in. Like [L.A.-based restaurateur Derek Berry], who is my partner in all this, he's the guy that had the idea in the first place. He did a series of pop-up restaurants based on properties like Saved by the Bell, Good Burger, and Breaking Bad, and stuff.
He was supposed to do Clueless, but then the Clueless folks pulled out because they were like, "We're in the middle of a pandemic." Then he was like, "Hey man, you've got a fast-food joint in your movies." And I was like, "Yeah, we could totally do something with Mooby’s." So we pulled it together very fucking quickly. And Derek is the key man, boots on the ground. He's the actual restaurateur in the bunch, the guy who is like, "Let's make sure the food is delicious because that's the fucking key and stuff."
Have the pop-ups been a moneymaker?
I'm never going to get rich off of doing pop-up restaurants, I assure you, but I don't do it for the money. I love selling the souvenirs and merchandise … but it's not like I can leave everything behind and just live off this. The setup is, the restaurant makes the lion's share of the money, and we make a small fee on top for allowing them to use the [idea]. But seeing them be able to pay employees, keeping people working and stuff, it makes you feel good. You're like, "Oh look, we're all having a good time. And it's doing some fucking good, particularly right now."
Did you consider having the workers at the pop-up insult the customers to fully recreate the Clerks II experience?
There was actually some discussions about that, like, "Do we have our staff kind of treat the customers insouciantly?" And I was like, "If I was somebody who was paying this much money to come and eat this food and look at some shit on the wall and whatnot and the people were like, 'This job would be great if it wasn't for fucking you!' I don't know that I'd need that." Instead, let's pretend all the employees are more like Elias from Clerks II who actually enjoys the public and is kind to them.
Conventions have been sacrificed during the pandemic. And the Mooby’s pop-ups seem like something you’d see outside of the San Diego Comic-Con or another other large con. So it's been like something to help tide geeks over until COVID-19 is over.
Absolutely, man. When you go to the San Diego Comic-Con, not so much on the convention floor, but all around the convention center itself, people have been renting out local spaces, re-skinning them, and turning them into gaming parlors or fake restaurant pop-ups and whatnot. So this is very much like that. It has the feeling of like, "Oh wow, we're going to a Comic-Con, but a very specific one subject only Comic-Con." You know what I'm saying?
It reminds me of the time they turned a building into Flynn's Arcade at the San Diego Comic-Con around the time they released the Tron reboot.
Agreed. Absolutely agreed. I remember that. It was dope. [The Mooby’s pop-up] is a novelty, just kind of repackaging something that people would do anyway. People got to eat. So they're like, "One day? I'll do this for one day." The nice thing is we've had repeat customers. When we were out here in Los Angeles, we were looking to do it a month. We wound up doing two months. And we started seeing regulars. People are just like, "I'd rather eat here," and it was sweet.
The menu mines food items from your different movies, like the chocolate-covered pretzels from Mallrats and the Hater Totz from Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Were there any items you considered doing but didn’t, like the salsa shark from the original Clerks?
Excellent fucking pull. There was a question about whether or not we do True North Trilogy stuff, stuff from Tusk and Yoga Hosers. They've got their own fake restaurant in those movies, The Gimli Sliders. So we were like, "Do we bring in Gimli Sliders?" but then we decided, "Let's not mix the universes yet. Let's hold that for a big crossover down the line." So it's something to build to, which is what we all learned from Marvel — have somewhere to go.
An Avengers-like film featuring all your various IPs ...
… Of [fictional] eateries, yeah. If I can just get one or two going in a movie, then bam. In terms of imaginary retail, which is limited to just restaurants, there's Quick Stop, which is a real place, there's Brodie Bruce's Secret Stash, there's Mooby's, and in the True North trilogy, there's The Gimli Slider and there's the Eh-2-Zed, their own convenience store. So we're getting there. A couple more and I got an Avengers-style universe [crossover] going. (Laughs)
I can hear the voice-over now: “Coming from Kevin Smith in 2025 ...”
Exactly. People are like, he still won't let that shit die, will he? I'm like, not while there's still a dime to be made. Heavens no.
Oh, you better believe it. Absolutely. The premise of Clerks III is that Randall has a heart attack and almost dies and he decides he wants to change his life. And instead of watching movies, he's going to make his own movie for once about him working at [the Quick Stop] so Dante and Randall make Clerks. And that allows everybody who's been in Clerks or Clerks II to come back. And since Mooby's featured so prominently in Clerks II that's where Dante and Randall met Becky and Elias, so it definitely pops up again in Clerks III.
And add to that, we're now in the Mooby's business, so thank God it works for the story, but it was going to be in the next movie regardless. That's for sure.
Is it easier being a vegan these days? I went vegetarian in the mid-‘90s and, back then, there were only two options at most restaurants: dinner salad or French fries. These days, you've got so many options.
I thank the Lord every day that I didn't have the heart attack back in the '90s, 'cause I wouldn't have made it out of the '90s, because I wouldn't have been able to change my diet. Because you're right, back in the day, it was like the salad was the only option at restaurants, or "I'll have the bread. Can I have some crackers, too?" My kid was vegan for three years before me. And we'd go to restaurants and she couldn't get anything and I'd be like, "Kiddo, this is too hard. It's just really limiting your options." And she'd go, "Well, you could take me to restaurants that are vegan." And I was like, "Yeah, but who'd want to eat that shit?"
Then, after my heart attack, the kid was the one who pulled me into it. My cholesterol was so high that I had 100 percent blockage in my [left anterior descending artery] so the nutritionist in the hospital was saying you have to do something about that. They'll put you on cholesterol blockers, but you've really got to bring it down. There are ways to do that, you could go more plant-based. And my kid was right there and went, yes, there ways to do that.
So yes, in truth, once you go vegan, your options are instantly limited. Anything that has dairy, anything that has an animal [products] in it, you leave it alone, you don't fuck with it. But now they've got substitutes for almost everything, but your diet shrinks by virtue of the fact you don't have access to everything you used to. And because of that, it makes life easier in some ways.
How hard was it for you to go vegan?
It reminds me of going to Catholic school. Every morning I got up and put on a fucking uniform and shit. And then, later in life, I wore hockey jerseys all the time. Because I don't want to fucking think about [what to wear]. We live in America and we're blessed with so many choices. So the notion of being vegan for me was, here's a limited menu you can choose from. And when it comes to that limited menu, I hate fucking vegetables, so the menu was even smaller than that. So it was figuring out what you can deal with for the rest of your life.
I'm like, “I like beans, I like peanut butter, I like chickpeas, these are all vegan items. I guess I can kind of work with this.” And then the meat substitutes are absolutely nice and welcome. I didn't eat as many burgers as a non-vegan as I do now as a vegan because I find the Beyond burger tasty as shit. So it's been great for me. Plus it helps with discipline. Once again, being an American, it's all about choice.
The Mooby's pop-up restaurant will be at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street, through Sunday, February 14. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $29 through the pop-up's website.