How Veggie Grill is Becoming the Most Important Fast Food Restaurant Chain

veggie grill

The two most taboo words in our food system today are all-too familiar: Fast Food. But if you’re Steve Heeley, CEO of California-based Veggie Grill, there’s never been a better time to be in the business.

Founded in 2007, Veggie Grill has quickly ascended into mainstream dining culture, a natural fit in its backyard of sunny southern California.

While Veggie Grill may appear just like any other trendy fast-casual joint, it differs from its competitors on nearly every level—even sustainability darling, Chipotle.

With it’s So-Cal inspired vibes, bright dining rooms, and fresh menu items, Veggie Grill’s menu isn’t just pro-veggie, or “veggie positive” as Heeley calls it, it’s 100 percent plant-based. Every menu item is vegan.

With 28 locations in California, Washington, and Oregon, Veggie Grill has found its niche among consumers seeking healthier eats.

The restaurants make sense on the left coast—with a focus on local, seasonal produce that’s readily abundant. In Los Angeles, it’s rare to see any restaurant menu—even at a meat-centric eatery—that doesn’t include ample vegan offerings. But Veggie Grill isn’t your hole-in-the-wall gritty vegan joint. Not by a long shot. It’s bursting with mainstream curb appeal and meaty plant-based foods that satisfy even the most committed meat-eaters. If McDonald’s reinvented diners in 1940, Veggie Grill is reinventing fast food—and meat—in 2016.

“Eighty percent of our customers are not vegan or vegetarian,” Heeley tells me as we sit in Veggie Grill’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters on an exceptionally warm November day. It’s nearly 90 degrees outside—perfect weather for grabbing a veggie burger or chicken salad and heading out to eat in a shady spot. In weather like this, it’s not a stretch to want to eat healthier, lighter.

But Veggie Grill is looking to expand to other markets in the Midwest and east coast, where rich comfort foods in the cooler months are still very much the norm. A recent round of fundraising brought in $22 million, which will help the chain’s expansion plans. And Heeley doesn’t seem the least bit intimidated by new markets, no matter what the climate.

“We’re constantly getting customers who’ve visited us on the west coast telling us we need to come to their towns.”

Similar to Whole Foods, which, now at more than 460 locations, initially thought there were only about 100 places it could take its stores a few decades ago, Veggie Grill is primed for expansion.

“We’re aiming to double our number of locations in the next three years,” says Heeley, who took the helm at Veggie Grill in 2014. Coming from leading fast food chains including Au Bon Pain and Baja Fresh, Heeley is applying conventional growth strategies to the chain, but without losing sight of what sets it apart from every other fast food chain out there. He’s excited; his eyes light up when he talks about how great the food is and what’s to come.

A few weeks back I attended a launch party at Veggie Grill’s Hollywood location for the first restaurant release of the Beyond Burger, made by another SoCal business, the El Segundo-based Beyond Meat.

“It’s a win at so many levels,” Heeley says of the burger that’s so “meaty” Whole Foods Markets have been positioning it adjacent to meat counters.

The burger lives up to its promise of a meaty texture, color, and flavor. Veggie Grill prepares it in a minimal, traditional fashion—sandwiched between a sesame seed bun with crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, vegan cheese, and sauce. It came with perfectly golden, crispy French fries. It’s a classic diner-style meal—certainly not everyday eating—but a healthy and delicious indulgence reimagining both plants and meat.

Driving the widespread acceptance of vegan and plant-based food options are, of course, Millennials. Heeley says they don’t bring a bias or preconceived notion about plant-based food to the table. And they’ve got concerns about the environment—fears that may only be exacerbated under an anti-climate Trump administration.

There’s widespread evidence that shows reducing meat and dairy consumption isn’t just good for our health, but it’s critical for the planet. Organic Authority recently reported on meat and dairy climate taxes proposed by Oxford University researchers. According to their data, it may be the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save countless human lives from diseases connected to consuming animal products.

All this makes Veggie Grill at the forefront of a changing industry. While other fast food chains are struggling to stay relevant, Veggie Grill is struggling to pace itself.

“We want to grow carefully and consciously,” says Heeley. And it’s not just about the chain’s ability to open another location, but it’s about scaling up safely.

“We take food safety very seriously,” Heeley says, emphasizing the company’s transparency and the relationships Veggie Grill has with its supply chain.

With four menus that allow it to rotate with what’s in season, Veggie Grill has developed fully traceable relationships with growers and suppliers. That gives customers confidence and comfort, particularly in a post-Chipotle Mexican Grill world. While the once seemingly unstoppable Mexican food chain is working to rebound after a series of unrelated food safety outbreaks that sickened hundreds in a dozen states between 2015 and early 2016, Chipotle has yet to regain its footing, but not before paving the way for healthier competitors.

Veggie Grill and other healthy chains have picked up the slack in Chipotle’s wake—offering customers healthy, safe, and delicious food. And if you can get past the Fast Food stigma, you could indeed eat many—if not all—of your meals at Veggie Grill and avoid many of the health problems that would come quickly were those meals to come from a traditional fast food joint (take note, Morgan Spurlock).

Mainstream concept chains are also beginning to take cues from Veggie Grill and the booming plant-based indsutry, adding veggie-focused and vegan items to their menus, says Heeley, pointing to outfits like Yard House and BJ’s that now offer plant-based meals. Wendy’s recently launched a plant-based bean burger in several markets. Taco Bell has a web page that shows consumers how to order vegan or veggie at its restaurants.

While there’s no substitute for home cooking, making healthy food fast, affordable, and delicious is a necessity of modernity—most consumers can’t and won’t cook all their own meals. And more than that, consumers want the freedom to let someone else do the cooking, making the choices, or at least, narrowing them down to menu size, from time to time. And when there’s a fast food place serving up healthy and incredibly tasty meat-free meals, it makes it all that much easier to say yes to the healthiest options, yes to campaigns like Meatless Monday or VB6 (Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6 pm), and even adopt some of those foods into everyday home cooking.

“Plant-based eaters are no longer on the fringe,” says Heeley. “It really is a rising tide.”

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image via Veggie Grill