A vegan fast-casual chain you've never heard of is expanding nationwide — and that should scare legacy brands
Steve Heeley, CEO of the healthy fast-casual chain Veggie Grill, is betting he can make vegan food not just palatable, but "craveable."
Founded in 2007, Veggie Grill serves burgers, sandwiches, and salads that have fewer calories than traditional fast-food — and happen to be vegan. The chain takes familiar foods, like buffalo wings and Caesar salad, and swaps out ingredients with plant-based substitutes.
"There are certain perceptions around the word 'vegan.' It means you have to deny yourself or eat brown foods," Heeley, a vegan, tells Business Insider. Not so at Veggie Burger.
The company has 28 locations in California, Washington, and Oregon. Thanks to a new $22 million round of funding last fall, Heeley expects the company to double in size by 2020.
We stopped by a Veggie Grill location in San Jose, California, to see if it meets the hype.
Don't let the name fool you. Veggie Grill is not necessarily going for the vegan crowd.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Vegans make up a small slice of the US population, about 2%. But the number of meat-eaters incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets, or "flexitarians," is rising.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Source: Science of Us
So while the vegan population might not be large enough to sustain an upstart fast-casual chain amid competition from McDonald's and KFC, a growing number of millennials might.
Veggie Grill wants to make it fun and easy to eat like a vegan. The company swaps familiar ingredients for plant-based alternatives from startups like Kite Hill and Beyond Meat.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
When you walk in, it's not abundantly clear that this is a vegan restaurant chain. Scott Nicholson, senior VP of operations, says, "If doesn't happen often, but people get fooled."Melia Robinson/Business Insider
I head into the kitchen to see where the magic happens.
Melia Robinson/Business Insider
It's unsurprising people can't tell the food is vegan sometimes. The Grilled Quinoa and Veg Burger has a slice of rich and creamy non-dairy, coconut cheese that actually melts.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
The Santa Fe Crispy Chickin' sandwich features a fried chicken patty made from soy, pea, and wheat protein, that looks and tastes as decadent as a Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich from McDonald's. It's topped with smashed avocado and spicy mayo.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
You might have to squint to find tofu on the menu. Veggie Grill uses it sparingly, party because the vegetarian staple gets a bad rap among meat-eaters.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Last December, Veggie Grill introduced the famous Beyond Meat burger patty to the menu. The Silicon Valley startup behind it claims the burger sizzles and "bleeds" like real meat.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
The restaurant prepares it in a classic American style, with grilled onions, tomato, lettuce, a house made sauce, and non-dairy cheese on a sesame seed bun. "I don't eat meat, but it brings back those memories of a great burger," Heeley says. It's since become a bestseller.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
The burger wouldn't have fooled me. The patty tasted slightly rubbery and was missing the charred outside you find on real beef when grilled.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Veggie Grill also serves the Beyond Meat burger topped with chorizo queso, fire-roasted poblanos, cherry pepper, grilled onions, lettuce, and tomato in the Super Rica Burger.
The falafel-topped Mediterranean Supergreens Salad wasn't nearly as fun as salads that feature plant-based "meats."Melia Robinson/Business Insider
But, fellow Frank's Hot Sauce addicts, the Buffalo Wings are not to be missed. I was hesitant based on their symmetrical shape that looked nothing like chicken wings.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
I would eat them by the bucket. The amalgamation of soy, pea, and wheat protein somehow tasted just like the frozen boneless chicken wings you buy in the freezer aisle.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
As I made my way through the menu, I was impressed by the diversity of foods. Between the Banh Mi Salad, Masala Bowl, and Southern Spicy Fried Chicken, there was something for everyone.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
I finished my meal with the Koreatown tacos, a hybrid of Korean and Californian cuisines that piles "chicken," avocado, black beans, crema, and red onions into tortillas.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
It blew me away. The plant-based chicken, tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce, tasted better than most chicken dishes I take home from Asian restaurants and Panda Express.Melia Robinson/Business Insider
The tacos reminded me of how much I enjoyed the wings, and I grabbed a final fistful. I realized Heeley was right: "The days of the mushy veggie burger are soon to be over."Melia Robinson/Business Insider
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