Industry veteran Greg Dollarhyde, who recently stepped down from the helm of Zoës Kitchen, has been named chief executive of the fast-casual vegan chain The Veggie Grill.
Dollarhyde, who remains an investor and executive chairman of Birmingham, Ala.-based Zoës Kitchen, also has made an unspecified minority equity investment in the Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Veggie Grill. The concept’s co-founders, T.K. Pillan and Kevin Boylan remain majority owners.
The six-unit Veggie Grill concept is known for its entirely plant-based menu, including faux-meat sandwiches and burgers, as well as salads and desserts made without meat, dairy, cholesterol, trans fat, refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Dollarhyde, who has served on the company’s board since the beginning of 2011, said he is tasked with spearheading expansion for Veggie Grill.
He grew Zoës Kitchen from 19 to 45 locations in less than three years after acquiring the concept in 2007 in partnership with Los Angeles private-equity firm Brentwood Associates.
Dollarhyde previously served as chief executive and co-owner of the Baja Fresh Mexican Grill chain from 1998 to 2003, growing that chain from 30 to 250 units before it was acquired by Wendy’s International Inc. for $275 million. He also is executive chair of Pacific Island Restaurants Inc., a franchise group of 89 Pizza Hut and Taco Bell locations in Hawaii and Guam, another company acquired with Brentwood Associates.
In an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News on Wednesday, Dollarhyde said he was drawn to Veggie Grill because of the high level of consumer acceptance for the menu, even among meat eaters, who make up about 80 percent of the concept’s audience.
“I think Veggie Grill is one of the most exciting new concepts on the restaurant horizon,” said Dollarhyde, who also prefers a plant-based diet. “It’s still ahead of its time, but it’s a concept and a way of eating whose time has come.”
Key in Veggie Grill’s appeal is that the menu includes recognizable comfort foods, he added.
“It’s familiar food, with burgers and carne asada and sweet potato fries,” Dollarhyde said. “A lot of people come in and don’t even realize it’s plant based.”
Veggie Grill was founded in 2006 by Pillan and Boylan, who had no restaurant experience but who shared the same frustration about the lack of healthful dining options.
“It just really bugged us that we couldn’t find convenient, healthful, good food,” said Pillan, who noted that he wasn’t a vegetarian when he started developing the concept, but he became one as he did more research, fueling his passion for the idea.
Pillan tends to avoid “the V word,” saying the chain prefer the phrase “plant-based” over “vegetarian” or “vegan.”
“The goal is to make it as fun, friendly and approachable as we can” for all consumers, he said. “We love vegans, and they’re a great part of our consumer base, but we don’t want people who are not vegans to feel they’re not welcome.”
Pillan and Boylan recruited restaurateur Ray White to develop Veggie Grill’s menu. White, who has co-founded four other vegan restaurants, joined as partner because he liked the “vision of making this type of food accessible to a mainstream audience,” said Pillan. “We thought his food was the best in terms of what we were trying to create.”
The menu includes meat substitutes made from vegetable proteins, which on the menu are called “Chillin’ Chickin’” and “Veggie-Steak.”
A top-selling dish, for example, is the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’ sandwich, made with Chillin’ Chickin’ in a coconut milk batter and breaded and fried, served with Southwestern-spiced vegan mayonnaise, avocado, lettuce and tomato for $8.95.
All items on the menu are under $10 and the chain has an average check of about $12, said Pillan.
Most units range in size from 2,200 to 3,000 square feet.
Pillan declined to offer average unit sales, but he said same-store sales have been positive every year since they first opened.
In 2010, same-store sales were up 13 percent over the prior year, he said. Even during recession-challenged 2009, Veggie Grill’s same-store sales climbed 5 percent over 2008.
“It all comes down to delicious food,” Pillan said. “If it didn’t taste great, everything else wouldn’t matter.”
The seventh location of Veggie Grill is scheduled to open in May in Los Angeles’ Farmers Market, a historic collection of eateries in the city’s Fairfax district.
Pillan said he expects five to six units to open in 2012. Growth will remain focused on Southern California initially, but Dollarhyde said he believes the concept will work up and down the West Coast.
The first step, said Dollarhyde, is tightening up the concept’s operations and kitchen design to indentify best practices that can be replicated going forward.
“Then we’ll start building a real estate pipeline,” Dollarhyde said. “We’ll grow as quickly as we can replicate our successes, and that takes a well-trained management team.”
Immediate growth will all be corporate, he noted. Franchising is an option that may be considered way down the road.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].