Veggie Grill

Steve Heeley

Veggie Grill is a 28-location fast-casual plant-based restaurant chain with restaurants in California, Oregon, Illinois, and Washington.

Veggie Grill’s 100% Plant-Based Menu is Getting Amazing Results

With 28 stores and more scheduled to open, CEO says they are “taking the brand nationwide.”


Q: What are the benefits from a business perspective of offering plant-based entrées?

Steve: It’s our brand, we have always been plant-based. It’s what makes us different from other restaurants. We find it to be a good differentiator.


Q: What are some of the the challenges of being plant-based?

Steve: There is a whole list of challenges of being a plant-based operator, including people’s perception of vegetarian foods. There are changing perceptions around plant-based food; a lot of the public want to eat more veggies, but they think they’ll have deny themselves flavor or satisfying and familiar types of food. Now a lot of people are seeking out plant-based foods, which is tipping the market. We try to source good plant-based foods in a manner that people find craveable and flavorful.


You can’t convince someone to change their diet with arguments. People make eating decisions emotionally, not rationally. There is a spectrum for people who eat plant-based; some eat plant-based on a weekly basis, some on a daily basis. When eating plant-based food, we want people to realize that they don’t have to deny themselves anything. They say, “Wow, this tastes great, and I can eat it everyday!”.


Other challenges are that we don’t have exact equivalents for analogous food products. Eggs are a good example, they are an integral part of a lot of foods, like baked goods. Sugar is another example, we can’t use most cane sugars because they’re not vegan, so we have to develop workarounds to create familiar and craveable products. In general, our ingredients are more expensive since we rely on some specialty manufacturers. Our chicken products are more expensive than chicken breast. We also make from scratch what most other restaurants buy from suppliers, which adds labor costs. A good example is BBQ sauce — 99.9% of BBQ sauces are not vegan, so we have to make it ourselves, using 14 ingredients that we have to source and store.


Q: What new plant-based products would you like to see manufacturers develop?

Steve: There is a lot of great stuff in development out there. We don’t see a good ground beef substitute, burgers analogs like Impossible and Beyond Meat are really good, but we haven’t been able to replicate ground beef’s flavor and texture. Eggs are big one, I know Hampton Creek is working on a substitute. Chicken products are getting better, but there is still a ways to go. Veggie Grill uses Gardein, which is the best on market.


Dairy substitutions are getting much better, improving every year. There is still a long ways to go in replicating the familiar flavor profiles, which make it approachable to a wider audience and will make them likelier to try it. People often try substitute products that companies tout as the real thing, but then the consumers don’t think it’s close. For vegans, that’s the best substitute they’ve ever had, but if you’re not vegan and you’re trying to find ways to eat more plant-based, and you try something that doesn’t taste right, you’ll get turned off. The more they replicate the real thing, not highly manufactured with lots of additives, then more people will start to try it.


Q: Are your plant-based entrées priced higher/lower/same as similar meat dishes?

Steve: We are very price competitive within the fast-casual space. Fast casual is a broad term, lots of companies claim to be fast casual. Veggie Grill is on the higher end, polished fast casual, while a company like Chipotle is more on the QSR end of fast casual. Within the better-for-you category, we are very competitively priced, even lower than other concepts.


We are the largest plant-based fast casual chain in the US. Lots of plant-based restaurants are local concepts. Our food is approachable, we are known for quality, innovation, and price. Our goal is not to be like Chipotle, because we offer a different type of experience. It’s not just the food, we offer service, engagement, and dining that is chef-inspired. Our menu is chef-driven, we offer three seasonal menus per year. We are always pushing the envelope when it comes to food quality. We have no plans to go after the QSR market, we intend on remaining a high-quality polished fast casual chain.


Q: Do you have insights into whether consumers ordering the plant-based entrées are vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian?

Steve: We know the generic numbers for the US population, but we don’t survey our guests on their dietary preferences. We do know vegan and vegetarians are more frequent eaters. Our approach is to welcome anyone who wants to eat veggie-centric food. Vegan is a diet. Veggie-centric is a form of cooking.  We are technically vegan, everything we make is 100% plant-based. But we don’t see ourselves as a vegan restaurant. Veggie Grill is for people who are veggie-positive, who just want to eat more plant based food.


Q: What promotions seem most effective for PB dishes?

Steve: We do a lot of marketing, particularly digitally. We have a loyal and dedicated fan base, a lot of our guests come from current guests experiencing the brand and being enthusiastic about it. They bring a friend, family member, or coworker in.


Most people are thrilled to share what we do at Veggie Grill, there is a buzz around our brand and food. Since we are a culinary-driven brand, mainstream food press writes about us because our food platform is so innovative. We push the envelope of what fast casual has seen.  We compete in the marketplace as plant-based and as a great fast casual restaurant, and that’s what makes us different.


Q: Can you share any growth numbers?

Steve: We have 29 stores and are opening more in LA, the Bay area, Chicago, and Boston. We’ll continue growing in our current markets. We are taking the brand nationwide.


Q: Are plant-based entrées easier or harder to store/prepare/serve?

Steve: They’re not simpler, we face the same sort of challenges that apply to other restaurants in terms of food safety and product handling. We do a lot of scratch cooking; our ingredients often have shorter shelf lives since they don’t have as many preservatives and additives. We also don’t serve much frozen food, other than French fries.


Q: We want to help other restaurants add successful plant-based dishes, anything you would recommend that would help promote this? Resource we could add?

Steve: The more that restaurants are exposed to the plant-based products, the better. If restaurants try the products and they are good, they can go into test kitchens. Many companies tend to seek a plant-based option, and make shall we say “obvious” (boring) choices like a kale and quinoa salad.  More plant-based companies should work with culinary people in these restaurants.


Some brands are smart, like Beyond Meat, with whom we have a great partnership.  People taste Beyond Meat in our restaurants, then they seek it out in grocery stores. It’s hard to get people to try something in a freezer case, but if they try it in foodservice, they are more likely to buy it in a store. Smart brands get that concept. The best way to market plant-based foods is to get people to eat it try it in a restaurant like Veggie Grill, and say “that tastes really good”. Especially with Millennials, they don’t cook at home as much.