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Chicago Business Journal

New Openings, Trend

Veggie Grill aims to deliver Chicagoans an all-veggie dining experience.

Steve Heeley thinks Chicago is ready to go veggie. Never mind this is the town where burger and steak and rib and pizza joints are practically everywhere.

Heeley, the CEO of Veggie Grill, truly believes Chicago is ready to embrace his veggie-centric restaurant concept.

It will be up to the populace in Chicago to prove Heeley right. Or wrong.

The first Veggie Grill to open beyond the West Coast, where 28 outposts have sprouted in California, Oregon and Washington since 2005, will open by year's end at 614 W. Diversey Parkway in Lakeview on the city's near north side.

That's a neighborhood where millennials represent a huge part of the population. This group can be adventurous, for sure. But by the same token they can be fickle, falling back on tried-and-true food favorites like, well, like burgers and fries and pizza after they've given the trendy or healthy stuff a try.

As the name suggests, Heeley's Veggie Grill is all about finding ways to make vegetarian eating an appealing experience, not only for hardcore vegetarians, but for consumers new to the idea.

Heeley's research has shown the public increasingly is open to what Veggie Grill has to offer: "People are more mindful of their healthy, and they want to eat better," notes Heeley.

Not surprisingly, Heeley's concept has resonated on the West Coast, where the healthy living mantra has been well-entrenched for some time. But in deciding to move beyond an area that readily gest what Heeley is pushing, he bravely chose Chicago, he said, because the public here signaled they were interested in his restaurant concept.

The menu for the Veggie Grill fast-casual concept includes items such as a Santa Fe Crispy Chickin' sandwich, a Quinoa Power Salad and something called the Sonoran Bowl, a mix of organic quinoa, black beans, carrots, avocado and a red pepper sauce among other ingredients. Not something a rabid ribs fan would likely tuck into without some major cajoling.

Interestingly Heeley said the most popular dish on his Veggie Grill menu is the Beyond Burger, a vegetarian burger that has pea protein as a principal ingredient. The Beyond Burger's popularity suggests that, even in a vegetarian restaurant, customers still gravitate toward the familiar, even when it turns out not to be quite so familiar as they might have thought. 

After Heeley opens Chicago's first Veggie Grill on Diversey Parkway, a second will open downtown in the West Loop on Wells Street.

And Heeley already has plans to push further east after making landfall in the Midwest in Chicago. The next market? Boston.

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