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Veggie Grill CEO: Chicago Needed More Vegetarian Options

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The nation’s largest vegetarian chain debuts its first Chicago location on Thursday

Veggie Grill’s spring menu will soon be in Chicago.
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Veggie Grill plans to open the first of as many as eight Chicago restaurants this week starting in Lakeview at 614 W. Diversey Parkway. The expansion marks the first Midwest location for America’s largest chain of vegetarian restaurants. The quick-serve chain debuted in 2006 in Irvine, California, and CEO Steve Heeley will be in Chicago for the opening on Thursday. The Santa Monica, California-based company operates 28 locations in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Customers will find veggie burgers, tacos, salads, wraps, and more. Heeley knows the area from time spent living in suburban Schaumburg. He knows the city has vegetarian options. He points to trendy restaurants, like Bad Hunter in the West Loop, that offer meat-free menus, that dissolve the stigmas around vegetarian food. That’s the notion that vegetarian food is bland and boring. Heeley blamed an abundance of brown rice and raw foods in the early days. He mentioned how even The Publican has transformed from just serving meat and potatoes in Fulton Market. That shift has opened the door for Veggie Grill’s expansion.

“I think there a whole lot of people that are mindful eaters,” Heeley said of Chicago. “For us that’s a positive because we’re about welcoming everyone.”

Heeley’s fast-casual chain serves a seasonal menu that includes the Beyond Burger’s meatless patties. Many vegetarians and vegans lament about how difficult and expensive their lifestyles can be. Heeley responded that Veggie Grill’s menu has different price points. On average, customers spend about $13 to $15. However, there are low-price items like a mini-Buffalo Chickin’ wrap, Heeley noted. Veggie Grill is not an assembly-line chain like Chipotle. Veggie Grill’s food is cooked to order, Heeley stressed.

Vegetarians and vegans have a variety of reasons for their lifestyles. Some care about the environment and reducing carbon footprints. Others don’t want to eat animals or dairy. Some are driven by religious beliefs. Heeley doesn’t differentiate between those customers. Even the omnivore who wants to reduce meat consumption is welcome. He calls those guests “veggie positive” and estimated 80 percent of Veggie Grill’s customers fall under that description.

“We’re agnostic,” Heeley said. “We just want you to come in and celebrate the vegetable.”

Steakhouses have long been a Downtown Chicago staple, and Heeley described a scenario where a customer eats a decadent steak dinner and charges the meal with a corporate credit card. Veggie Grill will be there the day after if the customer needs to detox with a healthy meal.

Local vegan and vegetarian message boards and Facebook groups have shown enthusiasm for the opening. Heeley also hopes younger customers embrace the concept. Chains regularly get requests from out-of-town customers to open new locations. Chicagoans were among the loudest from that group, Heeley said.

The first Chicago location is a big deal. Veggie Grill is unveiling a new urban design and has employed Gensler to work on the plans. Meanwhile, look for openings in the Loop and West Loop later this year. Opening multiple locations right off the bat was always the plan for Chicago.

“We wanted to really go in and have a market presence,” Heeley said. “We just didn’t want to go in and open one restaurant.”

Heeley said they’ll at least open seven restaurants in Chicago proper — sorry suburbanites — with a chance for an eighth. Look for more coverage later this week, as Chicago’s first Veggie Grill opens on Thursday.