Veggies—the New Fast Food

11 Nov, 2012

With 5 million Americans eating fast food daily at over 160,000 restaurants, it may seem unlikely that anyone could come along and succeed with a completely vegetarian fast-food chain. But as Chef Ray White, the cuisine creator behind the rapidly expanding Veggie Grill chain, will tell you, it’s a natural progression that can only get bigger.

“Five years ago, people were talking about recycling and going green,” White told Organic Connections.“Today it’s the mantra—if you’re not doing it, it’s like, ‘Why aren’t you doing it?’ We now have 13 restaurants, and we’ll have 17 restaurants by the end of the year. We’re slated for 25 more next year. The big changes are that minorities are beginning to come in—we’re seeing the black community really starting to embrace this. And the macho guys—the cop, the fireman, the athlete (the macho guys who would never set foot in these places)—are now gravitating to them. I see that as a cultural and a subconscious change in people; things are shifting and evolving into this.”

The Change That Led to Change

For White, the decision to specialize in vegetarian cuisine was, at first, a strictly business decision. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 40 years, and I’ve owned about eight or nine restaurants,” he said. “Around 20 years ago I met a girl named Tanya Petrovna in Redondo Beach, California. My restaurants at the time specialized in meat, fish and chicken, and she had a vegetarian restaurant. Someone had told me about her place, so I went and tried it.

“One day I was there for lunch, and all of a sudden I had these horns and whistles and everything going off. I thought, ‘Wow! This is the future! This is what I want to do!’ About a year or so later, I sold my restaurant. We got together and we opened up our first restaurant in Palm Springs called Native Foods.

“At first, honestly, it was a business idea. In the restaurant trade it’s always, ‘What’s the latest craze? Is it Chinese, Caribbean fusion? What is it that’s different?’ I thought that if I brought these new food products into mainstream America, it could be a great angle.”

But then Ray discovered what a difference such a diet would make for him personally. “I started getting into it and becoming a vegetarian; all of a sudden everything began changing for me,” White recalled. “My consciousness started changing; things started changing physically for me as well. I was an asthmatic; I had high cholesterol and blood pressure, and everything just went. Here I am 20 years later and my blood pressure is great, my cholesterols are around 146, and I don’t have to use an inhaler anymore. Physically and emotionally it made big changes in my life. I’m half American Indian and my dad is full Indian. His whole side of the family all died very young, and from cholesterol and high blood pressure. So I realized that I could really make a difference.”

Bigger Business

Native Foods thrived—they eventually opened five locations. Meanwhile, two retired successful businessmen, T. K. Pillan and Kevin Boylan, were having some realizations of their own.

“They were drinking coffee one day, and both realized they wanted to eat healthy,” White related. “Like me, they had high cholesterol and blood pressure, and there were no good places for them to go to eat. They started talking about that and they said, ‘Hey, let’s get into the business; let’s see if we can do something.’ So they formed a partnership, and then they went out looking for places to eat.”

One day, Pillan and Boylan discovered Native Foods—and the seeds for Veggie Grill were sown. “Lo and behold, they came across Native Foods in Westwood and they loved it,” White continued. “They came to me and asked me if I wanted to join them. I took a leap of faith and I said, ‘You know, if we’re going to do something big and make a big impact, we need financial independence. The thing that Tanya and I had was a mom-and-pop, and you just can’t grow being a mom-and-pop business. You need the contacts; you need the finances behind you to make a difference. That is reality as it is.’ So I sold my shares to Tanya, and I went on my way. We opened up the Veggie Grill.”

Taste Me

While other fast-food companies spend heavily on advertising, White has found quite another approach to be successful for Veggie Grill. “For us, we can’t advertise,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about promoting how great plant-based protein is, because people are not going to get it. So what we do is we give the food away. We go into an area and we have a Veggie Grill day: We go around to all the businesses and offer up to 40 people free food—‘Just come on in and we’ll take care of your office free.’ Because once they eat it, they get it. It’s worked for us.

“Today, for example, I’m here at the Torrance [California] store and the manager is talking to two high school girls from Palos Verdes High School; one is on the swim team and one is in volleyball. We’re saying, ‘Hey, bring your team down and we’ll treat you to lunch.’ If we get them to come, then they’re going to go home and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to go to Veggie Grill.’ I mean, McDonald’s did pretty well on that philosophy—get the kids, and Mom and Dad will follow.”

Up from Here

“At the moment, the state of food consumption in America is unfortunately very financial in nature,” White observed. “It’s sad that we can’t deliver really great food at a really reasonable price and compete with McDonald’s and Taco Bell. And it’s unfortunate that a lot of people who live paycheck to paycheck can go to In-N-Out and for 20 bucks they can feed their family—it’s something that they financially have to do. Mom and Dad both work; there’s not much time in a day. So for those fast-food places that combine convenience and price, unfortunately it works.

“But our type of food is on the rise. Even McDonald’s will eventually have to start doing some type of plant-based products in their stores. They actually opened one in India that was totally vegetarian, so I think that will come. When it becomes more mainstream in America, and more people get into this business, then the prices will start dropping. We can then begin reducing the price point so that more and more people can afford to do it.

“This is not a fly-by-night thing,” White concluded. “My partners have visions of opening hundreds. The biggest concentration of vegetarians today is high school kids, which tells me that it is generational. In my lifetime, I want to get to the point where we have Veggie Grill drive-throughs.

“Overall, McDonald’s had a good run and it’s time for them to move over. The times are changing.”

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