A vegan chain you've never heard of is expanding nationwide — and that should scare McDonald's

Steve Heeley, the CEO of the healthy fast-casual chain Veggie Grill, is betting that its burgers taste as good — or even better — than McDonald's Big Macs.

There's one big difference between the two: the former is 100% vegan. Veggie Grill's burgers are made of pea protein, while its "chicken" sandwich contains soy, pea, and wheat protein.

"Today's consumer is more mindful and aware that eating a diet made up primarily of veggies, fruits, grains and nuts is better for you," Heeley — who, predictably, is a vegan — tells Business Insider.

Launched in 2006, Veggie Grill serves fast-casual food that has fewer calories than traditional fast-food items. Its menu includes dishes like tempura green beans and "fish" tacos, with prices ranging from $3.50 to $11.50.

The chain has 28 locations right now, all of which are in California, Washington, and Oregon. But after a $22 million bump from investors, Veggie Grill ispreparing for a nationwide expansion. By 2020, it plans to double in size.

Heeley, who previously served as the COO for national chains Baja Fresh and Au Bon Pain, considers Veggie Grill fast-casual rather than fast-food (workers periodically come around to refill drinks, and customers eat on real plates). But its popularity speaks to a larger shift in consumer preferences toward healthier, meat-less options. And the brand is seizing the opportunity to compete with legacy brands like McDonald's and KFC.

To lure fast-food customers, Veggie Grill is offering several veggie burger options. On December 14, all locations will start selling the Beyond Burger, a plant-based (non-meat) burger made mainly from pea protein, yeast extract, and coconut and sunflower oil.

A long line of investors, including Bill Gates and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, have thrown their support behind Beyond Meat, which seeks to create a burger that tastes exactly beef. In May, Beyond Meat started selling its burger in refrigerated meat aisles at select Whole Foods. (For what it's worth, the Beyond Burger didn't quite pass for beef in my taste-test, but it's the tastiest veggie burger I've ever bought from a grocery store.)

Veggie Grill's partnership with Beyond Meat makes sense, since both companies aim to get some carnivore converts.

"If someone wants to eat a burger and fries but move away from fast food and get veggie-centric food, we are a great alternative for them," Heeley says.

Persuading Americans to eat less meat is definitely an uphill battle — Americans are still among the highest per capita eaters of meat in the world., But that might change, since the amount of meat US consumers eat has been slowly declining. Other salad-centric chains, like Freshii and Sweetgreen, and vegan chains, like Choices Café and Ecorazzi, have found success in recent years, too.

If vegan food startups can craft plant-based burgers that taste as delicious as real beef (and get their prices down), they may give McDonald's a run for its money.

RELATED: 10 money-saving fast-foodhacks

10 money-saving fast-food hacks
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10 money-saving fast-food hacks

Restaurant: McDonald’s

Hack: Order two four-piece nuggets instead of one six-piece. It’s cheaper, you get more nuggets and you get more sauces. Score.

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Restaurant: McDonald’s

Hack: Order a McDouble without the ketchup and mustard but with lettuce and Big Mac sauce. You'll pay for the Big Mac taste for the price of a McDouble.

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Restaurant: Chipotle

Hack: Order half of one protein and half of another kind (like chicken and steak). You’ll almost always get more than half of each and end up with up to 1.5x the protein in your burrito or bowl for the price of a normal portion.

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Restaurant: Arby’s

Hack: Order two junior roast beef sandwiches instead of one regular classic. You'll end up with more meat for a lower price.

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Restaurant: Jamba Juice

Hack: Substitute any ingredient in any smoothie for the same price. If you’re craving a smoothie with non-fat yogurt instead of mango, or extra strawberries instead of blueberries, customize it to your liking without any extra charge. It will save you more than being charged for creating your own smoothie from scratch.

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Restaurant: Jack in the Box

Hack: Order two Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers and combine them into one for a much cheaper version of a Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger. 

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Restaurant: McDonald’s

Hack: Order a sausage McMuffin off of the dollar menu but ask for the sausage to be substituted with egg—an egg McMuffin for a dollar.

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Restaurant: Any pizza place

Hack: When you call to order delivery, ask if there were any orders that weren’t delivered—the pizza place will often give you those orders for a discounted price (perfect if cold pizza is your thing.)

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Restaurant: Subway

Hack: Order a Double Steak and Cheese Sub instead of the Philly Cheese Steak Sub—you’ll get the same sandwich at a normal foot-long price.

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