It started with a chicken sandwich – a vegan chicken sandwich. With a tight menu of familiar fast-food items, Veggie Grill debuted in a university town in Orange County, CA with the goal of redefining fast food by bringing plants to the menu. Founder TK Pilan had no restaurant experience before launching this successful chain, but was determined to try. Exceptional food has always made a compelling argument, and Pillan decided to take advantage of it to revolutionize American food culture and bring a larger audience into the plant-based fold.
Now with nearly 30 locations under the Veggie Grill umbrella and two off-shoot concepts—Mass Veggies and Stand-Up Burger—Pilan’s idea has empowered millions of people to not only try but crave vegan food. We caught up with him from his roles at Veggie Grill and Powerplant Partners (a vegetarian private equity firm) to discuss the rise of Veggie Grill and the future of vegan foodservice.
Fast food, but plant based
Veggie Grill launched at a time of relative vegan scarcity. There was no non-dairy Ben & Jerry’s, Trader Joe’s vegan mac and cheese, or Impossible Whoppers. In fact, many brands think Staples didn’t exist in 2006. The concept of an entirely plant-based fast-food restaurant was originally limited to the high hopes and dreams of vegetarians of old. However, this did not deter Pilan. He saw it as an opportunity. He was driven to find a solution and change the American food culture that was so devastating to both human health and the environment, not to mention taking a terrible toll on animal suffering.
When Pilan first came up with the innovative concept, he was working in the tech industry with no restaurant experience to speak of. “My passion outweighed the logic of why I shouldn’t even try to start a restaurant chain—let alone a vegan chain … but at the end of the day, I thought traditional fast-food restaurants had a huge negative impact on food culture. impact, and I wanted to be part of the solution,” he explains.
Driven by passion, he was smart about building Veggie Grill. He meticulously planned and hired experts with “complementary skill sets” to set up the chain for success. True, the team faced challenges — especially when trying to convince landlords that a vegan restaurant would be a hit — but a shared vision for Veggie Grill drove them to victory.
“Our vision to change American food culture for the better through great restaurants that help people start, progress and enjoy their plant-based journeys has remained the same for years.”
Keeping the plant-based momentum going
Pilan admits that Veggie Grill is his first love, but over the past few years, he’s added a few other vegetarian ventures to his portfolio. In 2015 he founded Powerplant Partners to fund and grow other like-minded plant-based businesses. The savvy private equity firm claims Beyond Meat, Thrive Market, JUST, Hail Merry, and Miyoko’s Creamery among its investment portfolio, among a dozen others.
She also serves as a board member of 80/20 Plants—an app that guides users on a path to better health by championing mostly whole, plant-based foods and recipes. Regardless of this role, her mission remains the same: to advance the plant-based movement and encourage more people to not only try it, but become repeat vegan consumers.
Given Pilan’s vast success and experience, we wanted to gain some insight into what it takes to succeed in the plant-based market these days. “It’s a relatively simple formula, but one that’s not easy: consistently delivering compelling value to consumers in a profitable way,” he advises. “When you build a flywheel that includes a passionate and aligned team who are focused on being the best in the world at something and continue to grow and innovate in that offering in the right way, you can create long-term impact and value.”
The future of vegan food
It sounds simple in concept but difficult to execute, but plenty of vegan brands have shown they have what it takes to make a lasting impact on consumers and drive the plant-based trend. “I see a doubling of the tremendous progress I’ve seen over the past 15 years with excellent plant-based restaurants across multiple categories, dining occasions and markets,” Pillan predicts. “The multi-brand platform we’ve built at Veggie Grill is a great example. Between Veggie Grill, Stand-up Burgers and Más Veggies, we now cater and serve three different moods and food occasions. When we started Veggie Grill in 2006, the world wasn’t ready for it. But now, it’s exciting to see plant-based restaurants in any traditional restaurant theme––from Italian to sushi to cocktail lounges––being developed in their plant-based forms by people dedicated to providing excellent plant-based experiences.”
We assume this means there will be more niche vegan eateries in addition to the familiar cuisine. We have vegetarian butchers and cheesemongers, but there will likely be more vegetarian tea houses, omakase-style restaurants, poutine shops and other specialty concepts in the future.
Now is an exciting time to be vegan, but there is still work to be done. Looking at the bigger picture, vegan businesses are still a very small part of the food industry. For example, the top performing vegan category in terms of dollar sales in the US is plant-based milk, and yet, it accounts for 15 percent of the country’s overall milk sales. For plant-based businesses to gain more market share, Pillan emphasized that we need two things. First, stronger consumer demand for innovation resulting in high-quality yet low-cost products and second, government action.
“[We need] The government will start supporting plant-based industries versus meat and dairy products which will also help create price parity. That said, governments generally follow consumers and industry, so we all need to continue to use our influence to help more people choose and support plant-based products and companies that are driving the change,” Pillan said.
A person’s choice to patronize a vegan ice cream shop as an omnivore may not convince a lawmaker to end dairy subsidies, but when that person brings their friends or family, it can make a difference over time. Indeed, we vote with our dollars.
To wrap up our chat with Pilan, we got personal. We asked him what his favorite veggie grill order is. In typical founder fashion, he had a hard time picking just one. He explains that he moves around the menu, but his favorites are the buffalo chicken sandwich or the steakhouse burger when he’s feeling cheerful, and the kale and quinoa with tempeh or the power salad when he’s trying to eat healthy.