Funny enough, it was my more meat-centric, omnivorous friend who first showed me the vegan cornerstone that is Veggie Grill. With its variety in cuisine, bridging from Masala Curry bowls and Crispy Chicken Tacos to veggie burgers and Mac-and-cheese, this plant-based food chain has become a popular fast-food venture for both vegans and meat-eaters alike. Founders, T.K. Pillan and Kevin Boylan created the company in 2006 as they were inspired by the rising potential of healthy, sustainable plant-based food. Veggie Grill has since been voted the Best American Restaurant by LA Times in 2012 and made the list for Forbes’ 25 Most Innovative Consumer Brands of 2016. Despite its major strides in promoting lower carbon footprints and mitigating the issues of the meat and dairy industry, including factory farming, excessive agricultural land use, and water conservation, the company could do more to approach transparency, worker equity, financial accessibility, and greener energy standards. Yet, overall, the food chain is helping to change the way consumers think about plant-based diets, streamlining delicious, wide-range ingredients that don't have to rely on carbon-intensive, exploitative agricultural systems.
All of Veggie Grill’s menu items are meat and dairy free with no use of hormones or antibiotics. For most menu items, customers can specifically choose what protein substitutes or add-ons they want, ranging from Crispy Chicken to tempeh. Their proteins, which are mostly organic, non-GMO soybean or grain-based, include monounsaturated fats as opposed to saturated animal and trans fats that are higher in cholesterol. Not to mention, animal-based products expend around 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gasses annually to produce. Monounsaturated fats are generally found in canola, rice bran, and seed oils, which are known to lower the risks of heart disease and promote healthy antioxidant levels. Along with their Beyond Burgers, Veggie Grill created their House Veggie Burger from wild rice and mushrooms with whole grain sesame flax buns, arugula, tomatoes, and pickled onions, which altogether produces a highly nutritious, high protein menu item. Their plant-based burgers encompass around 19 to 20 grams of protein, compatible to the 20 to 22 gram range of most beef burgers. My go-to menu item, the Masala Curry Bowl is also health-conscious, high in dietary fiber, and low in unhealthy fats as due to its chickpea-based, butternut squash recipe.
In addition, Veggie Grill streamlines gluten-free options as well as discloses all nutritional facts and protein suppliers on their menu and website. Veggie Grill stands out as a fast-casual food chain as they do not make the food until it is ordered, preserving freshness while cutting down on unnecessary food waste that contributes to most of landfills’ methane emissions. Although this practice helps instill a more sustainable relationship between consumer demand and supply behaviors, Veggie Grill’s prices may still leave out more low-income customers. Their entree prices, such as bowls, salads, and burgers, are between $9.95 and $14.95. These prices make sense in terms of the quality of their ingredients and bypassing the cheaper production rates inherent to the meat and dairy industry. However, it is difficult to gauge how constructive their sustainable plant-based promise is if their scope of influence isn't as far-reaching and accessible as desired.
Thus far, Veggie Grill operates 29 restaurants in major cities in Oregon, California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington to name a few. CEO, Steve Heeley has stated his ambitions to expand Veggie Grill to more Midwestern cities and college campuses. The restaurants currently source most of their meat and dairy alternatives from partners like Gardein, Beyond Meat, and Follow Your Heart. Gardein is their supplier for most ‘chicken’ alternatives as the company provides non-GMO, organic soybean products that are high in protein. Gardein specifically produces their products in a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certified facility and sources ingredients from North American farms that uphold sustainable and equitable practices. This supplier is extremely committed to social equity and inclusive, fair worker treatment, garnering a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. Although their other supplier, Beyond Meat, is one of the leading sustainable producers of plant-based burgers, they do source some ingredients like coconut oil internationally and lack transparency over their extraction and transportation externalities. Nonetheless, Beyond Meat has made major strides to extend their reduced carbon footprint to their facilities, such as becoming LEED certified and improving energy systems, while also uplifting chemical-free manufacturing of their ingredients.
In terms of Follow Your Heart, the company supplies most of Veggie Grill’s vegan cheese, which is made from non-GMO ingredients like coconut oil and potato and corn starches. Follow Your Heart’s manufacturing facility is specifically orchestrated under Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), through which the company has achieved Zero Waste Gold level status by diverting “97% of their waste from landfills through composting, reusing, reducing, and recycling.” Furthermore, Follow Your Heart products are produced in majorly solar-powered facilities that offset 70 to 80% of their energy usage. Despite the strides of their suppliers, Veggie Grill has not yet disclosed the efforts they are making to approach renewable energy or fair worker treatment. As a company that is promoting a less environmentally-exploitative and labor-intensive industry, it is strange they have not widened the scope of their sustainability efforts toward their commercial and employee sectors, or if they have, they have not yet publicized them. One initiative they have taken up on is ensuring all their packing is compostable or recyclable; and yet, I could only find that information upon directly calling them. Ultimately, they could make their sustainable initiatives more holistic and transparent, especially publicizing their strides on their website and databases.
Veggie Grill’s leading founder, T.K. Pillan is also the co-founder of Powerplant Ventures, an equity fund that invests their capital and expertise for plant-centric sustainable entrepreneurs and companies alike. They have since raised $42 million to support high quality environmentally-friendly businesses like plant-based food and beverage company, Thistle, to promote a sustainable future. Additionally, Veggie Grill sought after environmentally-conscious vendors and experts when designing their menu. They particularly partnered with Ray White, co-founder of Native Foods, a 100% plant-based restaurant chain, to help lead Veggie Grill toward a similar earth-friendly direction. Veggie Grill is in compliance with California Transparency in Supply Chains Act standards that require companies to eradicate human trafficking and forced labor within their supply chains.
Recently, Veggie Grill has stated their desires to partner with Billie Eilish’s family-run charity called Support and Feed to provide plant-based meals to frontline responders, nursing homes, healthcare workers, and those in need. Yet, it is unclear the extent of Veggie Grill’s specific social equity action plans as not much is publicized. In total, it is refreshing to see a fast-food chain incorporate 100% vegan and vegetarian alternatives in a tasteful way. But, I still look forward to seeing the company undertake greater transparency and comprehensive environmental efforts that don't just stop at curtailing the meat and dairy industry but address all the inequities associated with fast-food and making vegan lifestyles more universally accessible.