The Craving Is Real

by Kathryn Romeyn

The Craving Is Real

In the fast-casual space, no one is doing plant-based fare like Veggie Grill, the health-conscious California operation turned West Coast treasure.

Eleven years ago, when Kevin Boylan and T.K. Pillan opened the very first Veggie Grill in suburban, sun-bleached Orange County, vegan food was not hip. It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t even all that known. In that sense, the guys’ new fast-food joint was revolutionary.

‘Not an April Fools’ joke’

The path to making sneakily healthy fried veggies and meatless burgers and wings accessible to the health-conscious masses wasn’t as simple as finding an audience for sweet potato fries, which they cutely dubbed Sweetheart Fries. It was far from easy. Boylan cites more than a handful of challenges he calls “enormous.” These included getting the word out, getting people to actually try the food and recruiting a wildly talented team who could craft compelling food.

Another key challenge, he says, was “convincing the landlord that a new vegan restaurant concept conceived by a former tech guy and a former investment guy, neither of whom had any restaurant experience, was not an April Fools’ joke.” To put it simply, he says, “envisioning was the easy part, but executing was the hard part.”

The plant-forward way

Irvine, where Boylan and Pillan debuted their freshman fast-casual restaurant specializing in plant-based comfort food, is coincidentally the home of Taco Bell and In-N-Out Burger—not exactly what anyone would consider healthy cuisine. But despite being surrounded by junk-food juggernauts, they hoped—wished—their own desires were reflective of the general public’s.

“We were frustrated by our inability to have regular, easy access to delicious and craveable healthy food,” says Boylan of the genre they identified as a win-win-win from nutritional, environmental and ethical standpoints.

“When we first started in 2006, as far as I could see, [vegan] wasn’t a trend,” adds Pillan. “But we were convinced plant forward was the best way to eat for a variety of factors and hoped other people would start to see that as well.”

They now have a couple dozen restaurants on America’s West Coast and, after completing a $22 million round of funding, are poised for a major nationwide expansion. Given Veggie Grill’s success and the proliferation of increasingly gourmet vegan restaurants around the world, it would seem their projections were right on point.

The food is no doubt to credit for the lightning-fast success that followed. Pillan says the ultimate goal was making vegan food approachable, fun and friendly. And while they aren’t trying to trick customers into thinking they’re eating meat, the menu doesn’t exactly shun those comparisons either. Veggie Grill plays off classic American and Southern Californian favorites like burgers, Buffalo wings, fish tacos, bánh mì and crispy fried chicken. The dishes are so tasty that they make diners forget they’re not eating the traditional meat versions.

A plan for all seasons

Also setting Veggie Grill apart from more staid fast-casual concepts: It rolls out original seasonal items four times a year. Spring additions included a new, instantly popular Tofu Poke Bowl and bold Super Rica Burger topped with chorizo queso, fire-roasted poblanos, cherry peppers and charred onions on a pretzel bun.

“Plant-based satisfaction at its finest, in my humble opinion,” says Pillan of the Super Rica Burger. He adds that the restaurants’ quarterly additions help “keep us at the forefront of the latest and greatest ingredients and innovations.” Plus, the new menu items keep Veggie Grill’s staff working diligently to perfect flavors and textures in dishes that can then be delivered consistently at accessible price points.

As plant-based cuisine has become trendy, the possibilities have grown exponentially. The latest ingredients that are being improved upon: plant-based yogurt, cheese, milk and beef, used in Veggie Grill’s innovative, delicious and very appropriately named VG Beyond Burger.

‘Progressive and conscious’

“Historically, the primary misconception [about] has been the idea that people have to sacrifice enjoyment in order to eat this food,” says Boylan. Consider that fallacy permanently quashed by this pair. Boylan and Pillan are as passionate about their restaurants’ comfort food creations as they are about continuing to spread the good word about a plant-based way of life.

By the end of 2017, the Veggie Grill chain will pop up around the American Midwest and East Coast. Within the next five years, Boylan and Pillan expect to have nearly 100 locations—not only standalone eateries in cities across the US, but also outposts on college campuses and in airports.

It’s further evidence that tapped-in customers aren’t found only in Southern California. “The profile of people who come to Veggie Grill is pretty diverse,” says Pillan. “But they all share a progressive and conscious mindset around the food they consume.” The future is here.

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