Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Greg Dollarhyde, CEO of Veggie Grill, on the proliferation of vegetarian cuisine in the restaurant industry. This interview and others can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights.
I worked with you several years ago when you were CEO of Baja Fresh. You were a pioneer back then in printing calories on the menu boards and offering healthier options. How did your journey from Baja Fresh to Pizza Hut to Zoes Kitchen get you to one of the hottest, plant-based restaurants, Veggie Grill?
The industry has morphed a lot in the last seven to 10 years based on how consumers are changing. People are looking to eat lighter and cleaner — especially on the West Coast.
More people not only care about how many calories they eat, but also about what kind of calories they eat. It has dawned on customers that one hundred calories of kale salad is different from one hundred calories of bacon, and it can still be tasty.
There is a growing focus on nutrients and vitality…which is leading to new food concepts that can provide these and are delicious too.
So are you a vegetarian?
I started eating a plant-based diet when I took over as CEO of Veggie Grill in April of 2011. I eat at Veggie Grill six to eight times per week, and I can say our food is 100-percent craveable, maybe more craveable than any other brand I’ve led. I’ve enjoyed some important body chemistry changes, and I have a nice level of consistent energy. When I had my last physical, my doctor said, “Wow, keep doing what you’re doing!”
Do most of your guests follow a vegetarian diet or are they primarily vegan?
Actually, only about 10 to 15 percent of our guests are vegetarian or vegan. Others are carnivores or flexitarians. Plant-based cuisine is really starting to come to the forefront. It’s not just for vegetarians anymore. Our guests like our food and our concept because they like to eat healthy, and they are moving away from animal products as a staple in their diet.
It is becoming very popular to eat vegetarian more often — even if you aren’t vegetarian.
[See the definitions of flexitarian, plant-based diet, vegan and vegetarian in "Terms to know" on the next page.]
What other trends are you seeing that are fueling the acceptance of vegetarian cuisine?
There’s been a steady growth in high-end vegetarian restaurants that didn’t exist a decade ago. Veggie Grill is really popularizing the plant-based diet and making it easy for people to eat healthy.
Vegetarian food used to have a reputation of being bland and mushy. But not at Veggie Grill. Our food is really craveable, full of flavor and full of nutrients. We continue to perfect our offerings, infusing flavor with seasonings and marinades.
What has made all of this easier is that there has been a proliferation of vegetarian products that weren’t available before. Look at the growth in products by Hain, Eves, Silk, Gardien and other plant-based manufacturers. You can now get milk made from almonds, soy, rice, hemp and coconut. All are easy to get and can work well in recipes.
What are your plans for growth?
We have 10 locations now, eight in Southern California and two in Portland. By the year's end, we will have additional locations in Seattle and the Bay Area. We are building a really strong team and are looking for the best sites we can find — and continuing to perfect the food we serve, making sure it is full of flavor.
Terms to know
Vegetarian: Many people who follow a vegetarian diet “personalize” the diet to meet their needs and likes. Most do not eat beef, pork, poultry, fish or shellfish. Some eat eggs, cheese and dairy, and some don’t.
Vegan: Vegans follow a stricter regime than vegetarians. They do not eat any eggs or dairy. They may also avoid foods and products that are processed with animal products (refined sugar, honey, some wines, some shampoos, cleaners, etc.) and/or tested on animals. Vegans consume grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and soy protein products.
Plant-based diet: People who follow this diet generally eat a vegetarian diet most of the time but might include occasional meat or animal products.
Flexitarian: This is a new term for people who eat a diet lighter in animal products but don’t restrict themselves to a strict regimen.
Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected].