For T. K. Pillan, a vegan lifestyle mixes his past and present – and the combination has given birth to not one but two plant-based restaurant chains that feature burgers, fries, tacos, wings, and naturally, salads.
Pillan was raised in Boston, the son of Indian immigrants, and though he “grew up eating a mainstream American diet,” his mother’s example opened his eyes to alternatives. Mani Thirumalaisamy was a holistic healer, steeped in the Indian tradition of diet as the key to health, “so I always had this background of food as medicine,” he says.
But Pillan’s career began in tech, and he founded an e-commerce firm in the mid-‘90s that brought him to Los Angeles. In 2004, he stepped away from his start-up, and his mother’s connection to the long Indian history of vegan eating caught his attention.
“I started to read about the health advantages of vegetarianism, and the impact of raising animals for food,” he says, and in 2005, he became a vegetarian. And since he was an entrepreneur who knew how to build a business, it was a natural step for him to think about opening a vegetarian restaurant.
Then again, it was 2005, not 2021. Sixteen years ago, vegan eating was far from even the California mainstream and just a tiny niche in the market. Pillan, though, had a vision, and with the help of Ray White, the owner of a small vegan restaurant, he decided to take the plunge.
The first Veggie Grill opened in Irvine in 2006, and though Pillan knew he had to make a profit, he was motivated by more than money. “I could see the preponderance of heart disease and obesity and health problems in America,” he says, and he saw a vegan diet as a way to help heal the people around him.
“We got a great early reception,” he said, but the second Veggie Grill, in El Segundo, took a lot more work. “We had to do food giveaways and samples to get people familiar with the products,” he says, but soon the quality of the food, the convenience and the reasonable prices attracted a steady clientele.
Pillan has slowly expanded to major metropolitan areas around the country, thanks in part to a menu that traffics in familiarity. Sure, there are salads, but there are burgers and sandwiches and hot dogs, and plenty of desserts – all of which have benefited from the steadily increasing sophistication and flavor of plant-based food.
“The menu itself has stayed pretty much the same,” says Pillan, “but what has changed a lot are the plant-based products. We always work with the best plant-based products,” which means Veggie Grills are constantly on the cutting edge of taste and texture.
But Veggie Grills do have some limitations. They tend to do best in more upscale communities and locations, and college campuses, and though they are established in California, Seattle, Portland, Chicago and New York, Pillan recognizes that their reach is limited. So his latest venture is Stand-Up Burgers, using Impossible Foods, which he calls “the vegan version of Shake Shack.” There are three in the Bay Area, and Pillan looks to expand what is essentially a fast-food, burger-and-milkshake restaurant into a nationwide chain.
“Eating out is such a core piece of American culture,” Pillan says, and improving the country’s health by a shift to more plant-based foods requires lots of locations. And having a Stand-Up Burger on Tuesday doesn’t mean that the customer can’t go to Burger King on Thursday – eating vegan doesn’t have to be a full-time commitment.
Of course, Pillan wouldn’t mind it if that happened, and he sees reason to believe American food habits are changing. “The market for what we do is expanding every day,” he says, but again, for T. K. Pillan, the Veggie Grill and Stand-Up Burgers are about more than a big bank account.
“We have a mission to change American food culture,” he says – and he’s doing just that, one restaurant at a time.
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