Veggie Grill Reuben

The Reuben is made with warmed corned beef, a special sauce, whiskey dill sauerkraut and provolone cheese on grilled rye bread.

Summer is nearly here, and with statewide health restrictions due to lift entirely soon, it’s time to stock up on charcoal (or propane), clean that rusty grate and invite some friends over. This summer should be everything last summer wasn’t: fun.

Veggie Grill is probably not the first place one would associate with summer barbecue fun, but the fast, casual and plant-based vegan chain has devised a clever Summertime Plant-Based BBQ Kit with a handy selection of nicely prepped, plant-based favorites designed for backyard grilling. (After all, it’s not called the Veggie Oven.)

The national trend toward plant-based eating continues to gain momentum. These days, a new vegan plant-based concept seems to pop up every other week. From vegan sushi to vegan doughnuts, the spectrum of options seems to evolve continually.

Not surprisingly, Southern California has been at the vanguard of the trend. Now with 28 locations nationwide, Veggie Grill was well ahead of the curve when it launched its first outlet in Irvine in 2006. Ingenuity combined with a vision for accessible, healthy food provided the original catalyst.

T.K. Pillan is co-founder and chairperson of Veggie Grill. An M.I.T.-trained engineer and entrepreneur, he had recently sold off a successful e-commerce startup in 2005 and agreed to have a cup of coffee with his friend and colleague Kevin Boylan, an investment banker. 

“During that cup of coffee, I talked about what else I was working on, which was what I thought was a big need: to develop healthy, delicious, convenient food and bring it to people in the form of a convenient restaurant,” Pillan recalled. 

It happened that Boylan shared his interest. “I was just starting to work on it, and to my surprise, he (Boylan) was really a health-conscious guy and always struggled to eat out and find delicious, convenient healthy food as well. He was intrigued by the fact that I was trying to solve this and was ready to jump on board. Together we dove in, one thing led to another, and we got really passionate about the benefits of plant-based foods because we became plant-based eaters as part of our research,” Pillan explained.

With no prior background in the restaurant or food industry, the enterprising pair brought in another partner, chef Ray White, to develop the first menu. White had already launched several successful vegetarian restaurant concepts locally. He was also an enthusiastic advocate for plant-based eating and was actively seeking vegan alternatives to the typical fast-casual fare of the time. 

After initially opening outlets in Orange County, Los Angeles was next, and the chain began to build from the popular response to its menu of vegan plant-based analogues to burgers, hot dogs, tacos and wings. A survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2019 determined that only 4% of Americans identify as vegetarian (no meat, seafood or poultry) and 2% as vegan (no meat, seafood, poultry, dairy or eggs). Those numbers can’t explain the success of Veggie Grill.

“I would say the majority of our guests are flexitarians,” Pillan said. “70% of our guests aren’t specifically vegetarian or vegan, but they definitely like to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet. We give them the ability to do that in a delicious, familiar way.

“So that was the vision and the passion: to package plant-based foods and bring it to life in a way that would attract mainstream Americans who weren’t seeking out plant-based foods.

“That was the original passion for starting Veggie Grill. Our vision today is still very much the same. The grill kit really fits into that, which is to help people begin, advance and enjoy their plant-based journey.”

Forget the industrial beef patties, mystery dogs and cage-fed wings. Veggie Grill makes it simple to throw a healthy summer barbecue (and a lower carbon footprint, even over hot coals). 

Veggie Grill’s Summertime Plant-Based BBQ Kit provides all of the following items:  two Impossible burgers with Veggie Grill Special Sauce, lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and pickles on brioche buns; two BBQ Pulled Chickin’ sandwiches on brioche buns with pickles and roasted jalapeño picnic slaw; two Sweet & Smokey Field Roast hot dogs with house-made chili and spicy mustard; six pieces of corn on the cob with a side of chipotle lime butter; and a side of smoked potato salad. Priced at $65, cooking instructions are also provided. Downtown residents don’t need a backyard grill to use the kit — it’s just more fun that way.

Other new items on the Veggie Grill menu include: the chili dog plate ($8.95) with potato salad and picnic slaw; the Reuben on rye ($11.25) with whiskey dill sauerkraut and provolone cheese; or the masala curry bowl ($9.95) featuring roasted butternut squash, turmeric cauliflower and braised cabbage served over curried chickpeas and wild rice.  

There are family meal deals ($39.95) with a generous combination of choices for four. There is also a kids menu and a dedicated gluten-free menu with over a dozen alternatives. The “Not So Secret Menu” features chili cheese fries ($7.95), chili cheese nachos ($6.95) and a seven-layer burrito ($8.95).

Veggie Grill’s DTLA location near the Central Library at Sixth Street and South Grand Avenue suffered with the rest of its neighbors during the pandemic.

“All of our Downtown locations — Downtown LA, Downtown Seattle, Downtown Portland — and New York City all got hit the hardest. So they are all still lower on our recovery spectrum, but we are encouraged. There are a decent number of people who live in the Downtown LA area who rely on Veggie Grill for their meals now,” Pillan noted.

Pillan has kept busy over the last year. In January, he opened the vegan taco concept Mas Veggies as a virtual brand, using Veggie Grill outlets as effective ghost kitchens. In March, the first Stand-Up Burgers stand, serving vegan burgers and sandwiches exclusively, opened in Berkeley, with two more scheduled to open in Chicago later this year. The 29th Veggie Grill location will open this fall on the UCLA campus.

“We’ve got great American classics that we’ve evolved into the best form they can be in the  plant-based world. We would invite everybody to just give it a try. If you haven’t tried plant-based, we’re the place to come give it a try,” Pillan caid.