1851 Franchise spoke with Pillan to learn more about the history of the veggie-focused QSR concept, the strength of the business model and future growth plans.
1851: Tell us about the history of the Veggie Grill brand.
T.K. Pillan: I grew up in Boston as the son of Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early ‘60s. Both of my parents were devout vegetarians and my mother was a registered nutritionist and holistic medicine practitioner. I was a star athlete and the captain of the high school baseball, basketball and soccer teams, and my parents wanted me to assimilate into American culture, so they didn’t impose any culinary restrictions onto me. So, like most people, I grew up eating meat.
After I graduated from MIT with an engineering degree, I moved to Los Angeles and began my career in computer systems and consulting. With the goal of moving more into the business side of the tech industry, I earned an MBA from UCLA in 1996. After starting and selling an ecommerce company, I was ready to do something new. I was 37 at the time, and I always tried to eat healthy given my family influence, but I never felt great about my options. Subway was the healthiest option you could find back then. I started reading about all of the issues that were impacting health and wellness in the U.S. — obesity, diabetes, pharmaceutical dependence. My mother had always tried to help her patients with food rather than medicine, and she had a lot of success stories. I knew there had to be a better way, and that is where my passion for plant-based eating was born.
1851: What void did Veggie Grill set out to fill?
Pillan: All of the biggest franchises offered burgers, pizza, chicken — why couldn’t there be something that is healthy, convenient and delicious? That really hit me. I knew it could be great if I could create a business that helped move the country in the right direction. The health food segment was growing 20% year-over-year. Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation were super popular at the time. It wasn’t just me. There was a big need for this.
I didn’t have any restaurant experience or know how to cook, but I visited every healthy restaurant in SoCal. I found a couple hole-in-the-wall vegan restaurants and the food tasted great. They were using different versions of veggie proteins and were making their own salads, deserts, dressings, etc. That was a big lightbulb moment for me.
During my research, I also started to learn more about the health benefits of veganism. Protein, calcium, nutrients — you can get everything you need in a plant-based diet. It also helps you stay protected against diseases. I became a plant-based eater myself and within three months, I had lost 20 pounds and my cholesterol went from over 200 to under 140. I became a big believer.
I also read the book Diet for New America, which shed light on the inhumane practices of factory farms and how destructive the meat industry is on the environment. That was powerful.
With all of this information, our overall mission was to make plant-based eating fun, friendly and approachable. We wanted to do for vegetarianism what Whole Foods did for natural, organic food or what Starbucks did for specialty coffee.
1851: What are some lessons the Veggie Grill brand has learned along the way?
Pillan: The first Veggie Grill location officially opened in Irvine, California in 2006. The biggest challenge at the time was really just getting the general consumer over that hump of understanding the product. “Vegan” was a foreign word at the time. We did everything in our power to come up with a brand and a menu that would overcome that stereotype and really deliver on the promise of great food.
While the first location opened up across the street from U.C. Irvine and next to a Trader Joe’s, which meant a lot of foot traffic, the second location was a little more off-the-beaten path. We opened that location in January of 2008 in a little corner spot that wasn’t visible from the road. We were worried that people wouldn’t seek us out, but by April, we were doing more volume than the first location. That was a big learning moment for us. We have something that people want. It is a concept that really works.
We knew we could achieve our vision of creating a national restaurant chain that empowers plant-based eating, but we didn’t want to go too fast. We opened one or two locations a year and slowly introduced the concept to new regions. Today, 17 years later, Veggie Grill has expanded to include 35 corporate-owned locations in California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York City.
1851: Why is Veggie Grill a strong franchise opportunity?
Pillan: Franchisees have an opportunity to invest in a concept that is good for you, good for animals and good for the planet. The time has never been better to join the plant-based movement, and as the largest plant-based QSR in the industry, Veggie Grill is the perfect platform to do so.
We’ve spent the past 17 years building a proven business model. We have a full-time, in-house culinary team that innovates constantly. We have the supply chain worked out. We understand real estate. We can span across multiple channels of business. We have everything franchisees need to be successful. The market today supports plant-based restaurants in every metro and we are confident we have the proper support in place to empower franchisees.
1851: Who is the ideal Veggie Grill franchise owner?
Pillan: Our vision is to be a thriving global restaurant brand that does good for people, the planet and animals by inspiring and empowering plant-based eating across the world. The best way for us to do that is to partner with passionate, skilled restaurant operators who want to not only serve great food, but also make a positive impact on the world. We have the concept that allows them to do it. There are more people than ever who understand the benefits of plant-based eating, so if you can give them an alternative meal choice that is just as delicious and convenient, you can make a real difference.
We want to bring on experienced owners who have restaurant knowledge and are excited to be the first in their market to open a Veggie Grill. We also want operators who understand the movement, understand the market and are financially viable. We know there are a lot of entrepreneurs out there who align with our values, so we are excited to work together to achieve that collective mission.
1851: What are Veggie Grill’s growth plans?
Pillan: We know that the best way to achieve our long-term growth vision is to partner with great franchisees and provide them with the branding, the menu and all the knowledge to follow in our footsteps.
We hope to sign two to three franchise deals this year, followed by five next year and up to 10 in the years following. We are looking to develop in all major metro markets across the country with an emphasis on California, Washington, Colorado, Texas, New York, Massachusetts and Florida.
The total initial investment necessary to start a Veggie Grill ranges from $749,000 - $1,297,000. For more information, visit: https://veggiegrill.com/