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QSR Magazine


The 40/40 List for 2019: America's Hottest Startup Fast Casuals

Although just 8 percent of U.S. diners categorize themselves as vegetarians or vegans (according to a 2018 Gallup poll), there's no denying that Americans' demand for veggie-focused foods is growing rapidly. And California-based Veggie Grill is getting a slice of that pie.
Born in 2007 out of the founders' desire to offer healthy, delicious, and innovative plant-based food, the concept has grown to 31 units across California and Chicago, with plans to open up to 10 additional stores this year by breaking into the New York and Boston markets.

"When our founders opened the first Veggie Grill 11 years ago, there weren't a lot of mainstream vegetarian restaurants," says CEO Steve Heeley. "A lot of them were mom and ops, and they were serving what was-at the time-people's paradigm of vegetarian food: steamed broccoli and brown rice and a bunch of greens."

But that type of menu doesn't cut it at Veggie Grill. Instead, the brand has earned a reputation for some of the most envelope-pushing creations in the vegetable-forward world. The broccoli of yore may be on the menu, but it takes a backseat to flashier items like a range of Beyond Burgers - the plant-based burger that cooks, feels, and tastes like ground beef - chicken-less buffalo wings, hearty flatbreads, and more.

Every item at Veggie Grill is made without meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products, and can meet a host of dietary restrictions or requirements, be it gluten-, dairy-, soy-, or nut-free diets. When dreaming up new menu items, Heeley says, the R&D team often works backward, determining what foods and flavors customers want to eat-be it crab cakes, penne Bolognese, spicy fried chicken, or something else entirely-then engineering those items to be plant-based. New menu items take anywhere from six months to two years to bring to market, with the team working on 15-20 creations at any given time.

Veggie Grill is also mindful of its impact on the environment; that's why all of its packaging is compostable, with fully recyclable plateware.

Both its food and eco-friendly philosophy have made Veggie Grill a haven for healthy-conscious diners, particularly those wholly plant-based eaters who have few other options. "For them, we're basically their kitchen," Heeley says. The menu variety ensures even those regulars don't become bored, he adds. But for the first-time visitor, Heeley admits that the concept can be somewhat intimidating. That's why employees are trained to hold guests' hands throughout the experience. "It's really important to us that our team members are welcoming and that we help guests make good decisions so they start their journey with our brand on the right foot," he adds.

As it expands its footprint in pockets across the nation - Heeley's goal is to grow 25-35 percent annually over the next handful of years - Veggie Grill aims to continue carving out a place in the new vegetable-forward niche. "A lot of restaurant business is iterative; it's spin on what's come before," Heeley says. "But this category of craveable, innoative, plant-based food is a whole new category. The fact that there's more to Veggie Grill than just a transaction is really what makes us unique."

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