Creating luscious, craveable plant-based fare ignites the popularity of Veggie Grill
In the past decade, plant-based foods have quietly moved from playing a supporting role in the mainstream American diet to becoming the lead performer on many plates. That’s great news for fast-casual rising star, Veggie Grill.
“Our research shows that one in five American adults have made the conscious decision to move veggies to the center of the plate, and move meat, dairy, and starches to the outside of the plate,” explained CEO Steve Heeley. “This growing group of ‘veggie positive’ diners are mindful of what they eat, and make up about 80 percent of our guests.”
Founded in 2007 in Irvine, California, the chain has 28 restaurants in California, Washington, and Oregon, and is developing ambitious national expansion plans.
Feeding the Demand
According to a 2016 Harris poll, 37 percent of the American population “always or sometimes” eat vegetarian meals when dining out, with roughly five percent always choosing vegetarian or vegan restaurant meals.
Add to that increasing numbers of mainstream diners actively choosing to incorporate more fruits, grains, nuts, and veg into their diets, and a rich market of mindful consumers emerges. Whether motivated by the desire to eat more healthfully, a commitment to reducing the environmental impact of meat and fish production, or to simply embrace the latest gustatory trends, vegetable-forward diets are on the rise.
Encouraging numbers aside, reaching this diverse group requires creativity and finesse. For many U.S. consumers, the idea of vegan fast-casual dining is on the far fringes of their restaurant radars, conjuring images of spongy tofu dishes that taste like, well, sponges.
Veggie Grill is busting stereotypes like these with the one thing we all desire: flavor.
“When we develop our food and our menu, we start from a place of ‘what do people want to eat today? What are the flavor profiles? What are the types of food that are craveable and innovative?’ The magic that we do is engineer it to be plant-based,” noted Heeley.
Veggie Grill’s chefs have turned the typical ingredient-first approach to dish design on its head. “We’ve had great success with this,” he added.
Simply put, the message behind every Veggie Grill offering is if a meal doesn’t taste great, why bother to eat it? The company is dedicated to creating innovative seasonal menus that inspire nothing less than craving.
Consumers Hungry for Taste and Variety
In October 2016, the firm captured $22 million in funding from Brentwood Associates and Powerplant Ventures, a venture capital firm developed by Veggie Grill founders T.K. Pillan and Kevin Boylan. The cash infusion will enable Veggie Grill to answer an abundant number of location requests, estimated to be hundreds per week, powering their expansion deeper into the West Coast, Chicago, and select East Coast markets.
“We have an experienced management team that has grown companies in the past, and they’re very excited and ready to go,” Heeley confirmed. “We’re pursuing real estate now, and our growth plans are fast and conscious. We’re very selective on locations, and we know we can serve these areas very well.”
The chain plans to begin opening new locations in the second half of 2017, ultimately doubling in size over a three-year period.
Using fresh, whole ingredients is a costly proposition. Astute supply chain management, careful purchasing, and the development of strong vendor relationships helps the group keep offerings affordable, enticing consumers at every level of disposable income.
New Flavor Sensations
Meat substitutes have a long and hoary history in vegan and vegetarian kitchens that Veggie Grill is overcoming with the use of the revolutionary Beyond Meat product, which Heeley touts as a significant step toward attracting customers who enjoy eating meat.
The non-GMO product is designed to have a mouthfeel similar to ground beef, using pea protein and beets to simulate the taste of hamburger.
“We’ve known them for a long time,” Heeley said. “We thought they were on the right track in terms of developing these meat substitutes. There are lots of meat substitutes on the market, some good, some okay, many not very good. Beyond Meat is a phenomenally good product for our space.”
Heeley added that products like Beyond Meat are poised to serve changing consumer tastes over the next two decades. “At the end of the day, the meat patty is part of the flavor profile of a burger and it has to be craveable.”
Veggie Grill is the first chain restaurant to use the product, which “bridges the gap between old school plant-based meat products and today’s delicious flavors.”
Meat-Free Menu Choices
Veggie Grill isn’t going down the well-worn marketing path of touting healthy food, and you won’t find the words vegan or vegetarian on their promotional materials.
“We don’t say we’re healthy because we don’t have to,” declared Heeley. “Intuitively everything on our menu is better for you. When you make really yummy food, you discover that while you can take on a veggie-centric diet you give your guests a way to eat better. Our guests appreciate that.”
Patrons have doubted the meatless aspect of the menu, often asking if their “chickin” dish was mistakenly made with real chicken.
“We don’t sacrifice flavor or variety. We make our food approachable,” he said.
At this time, there were 15 to 20 new menu items in development. Veggie Grill’s menus are seasonal, in part to take advantage of nature’s bounty and to offer a variety of fresh choices.
Currently developing their summer menu, which stars a falafel sandwich that Heeley hopes will erase the memory of mealy fried chickpea discs smothered in overly tart tahini.
“It’s house made and really incredible,” he enthused. “We use whole chickpeas, and the flavor is really, really good. It’s going to be very popular.”
Other items include a bold riff on charred Mexican street corn, or elotes, complete with non-dairy crema, and a customer favorite, the Moroccan Bowl. Made with lentils, lemon, quinoa, almonds, golden raisins, and fire-roasted carrots, the flavor is off the charts.
“People are discovering and getting into Mediterranean flavors and unique flavor profiles.”
“We put the best of the season into a salad,” he added. “We make great tabbouleh with whole grains, kale, and avocado, and our summer corn and tomato salad is a burst of freshness.”
On the fence about trying vegetable and fruit-forward dishes? Heeley knows that won’t last once you step inside Veggie Grill.
“Give it a try: I think you’ll be surprised and delighted. You’ll discover that veggie-centric food is really a fantastic journey you can start on.”
We have no doubt that this trend will foster a bountiful bottom line for chains that innovate plant-based menus—and Veggie Grill is leading that forward charge. More veggies, indeed.
Behind each veggie-filled dish is a story that starts long before that first bite. It all begins with like-minded people we love—those who go the extra mile to grow the best ingredients out there. Once those fresh ingredients reach our kitchen, we take our time to make each dish right.
That means from chopping to saucing, we are always coming up with new ways to celebrate the best of every season, bite after craveable bite. At our place, we work to make bold and innovative dishes that offer a whole new experience for your taste buds and make you feel like you’ve never felt before.
It’s that last bite you fight over, that side you share while you tell a story, the drinks you’ll make a toast to. And that’s what we’re about. Because at Veggie Grill, we believe in firsts, and seconds, and thirds. We believe in “more veggies, please!”