T.K. Pillan

Co-Owner of The Veggie Grill

One of the hardest things about being vegetarian / vegan / gluten-free is eating out, and I had no idea until I actually changed my diet. It was only then that I realized how most restaurants revolve nearly every dish around meat.  And if it doesn’t have meat on it, it certainly has dairy or other animal by-products.  Frankly, I wasn’t all that unhappy about giving up fast foods, because they’re almost always extremely unhealthy.  Regardless, I’m busy like everyone else and want a convenient, but healthy meal on a weekly basis and until I found Veggie Grill that place didn’t exist for me.

I was first introduced to Veggie Grill when Cindy and I learned of their West Hollywood location.  I remember being nervous about dinner because a lot of vegan foods and combinations are still new to me.  Interestingly enough, a good portion of people that walk into Veggie Grill don’t know it’s vegan.  Items on the menu include: chicken sandwiches, french fries, wraps, salads and a number of other “normal” dishes that most people wouldn’t commonly associate with a healthy diet. To a large degree, this has been a part of Veggie Grill’s success. They don’t push a lifestyle or type of diet on its customers. They let their food do all the talking and it works.  People, including me, are repeat customers because the food is legitimately delicious.  The fact that it’s healthy is icing on the cake.

Since I love the food and concept so much, I decided to try my luck and email one of the owners to see if he would consider doing an interview for We Eat Plants.  I didn’t expect a response, so I was surprised to hear back, let alone that he’d be happy to help out.

T.K. Pillan (“T.K.”), co-owner (Kevin Boylan is his partner) and founder of Veggie Grill, met me for coffee one morning near their El Segundo location.  T.K. was easy to talk to and I was immediately certain that my time with him would be extremely interesting and informative. We ended up talking about a number of things over the course of a couple hours, some food related and some not.  He was gracious with his time and provided insight into Veggie Grill’s history, the public response, and what’s next for the rising restaurant.  We even touched on his personal experience with becoming vegan and what he tells those that want to perhaps try it themselves.

In all, it was a pleasure meeting T.K. and I can’t thank him enough for his time.  So without further adieu, here’s what he had to say:

How did the Veggie Grill start?
We started in 2005.  I was previously in technology, but sold my company. I was trying to figure out what to do next.  I had a blank slate, and one of the things that always frustrated me was trying to find delicious, wholesome, convenient food.  I wasn’t vegetarian at the time, but was what I would consider “health-conscious” and was just not happy with the choices.  I was getting tired of picking up pizza on my way home from work and thought that there has to be something better out there.  It bothered me enough that I started doing the research, and ended up partnering with another gentleman with the exact same perspective.  We both spent a lot of time looking at what was out there. First, we determined that a lot of people had the same frustration that we had, and second, and this was our real epiphany, we discovered how delicious plant-based proteins could be when you used the right marinades and sauces.

We started doing research on plant-based foods and were pretty surprised at the number of benefits that you get from getting your protein from a plant-based source.  We were trying it ourselves and had great results.   We lost weight, our blood pressure went down, and we had more energy.  So we became passionate about the fact that plant-based proteins were delicious and amazing, and really wanted to show a mainstream audience how delicious this food could be.  That is really what gave us the wherewithal and passion to start The Veggie Grill.

How have people responded?  What is some of the feedback you have gotten?
Before we opened our first location we were definitely taking a leap of faith that we could get more of a mainstream audience, the non-vegetarian crowd, to give it a try.  Our whole passion was to take this delicious plant-based food, expose it to a larger group and get them to come in and try it. We were pretty confident that once people tried it they would be amazed.  We opened our first location in November 2006 right across from UC Irvine, and to our joy and relief we were embraced.  People were really looking for wholesome, delicious, convenient food and we were able to put it in a way that was fun, friendly and approachable.  People loved the food and concept and loved being able to get good ol’ fashioned American comfort food, like a burger and fries, and feel good about it.

Where are you guys today?
We have just opened our sixth location right now at Rolling Hills Plaza on the corner of PCH and Crenshaw in Torrance, CA.  We will be opening our seventh in May at the Farmers Market right next to the Grove in the heart of LA.

Speaking of farmers markets, do you by your food locally?
We do as much as we can.  We have several produce vendors that source locally.  The most important thing we do though is being100% plant-based, because plant-based foods are the most sustainable foods that we can be eating.

If we can go back to when you started, what have been some of the most influential books that you’ve read that helped shape your opinions?
The China Study by T. Colin Campbell is a great book in terms of laying out the data that’s out there, and how plant-based foods really lower your risk of a number of diseases.  Diet for New America did a great job encapsulating all the benefits of plant-based foods.  Skinny Bitch was a great read for people looking for a more fun and entertaining story.  Obviously, there are a lot of new ones that have come out like the Veganist and Eating Animals.

I know you became vegan about six years ago.  Talk about the difficulty you had with the transition, because it seems like everyone struggles with it.
My recommendation for anyone who asks me is that if you really want to do it, commit to it for a month.  It takes you a good three to four weeks to develop new habits and find foods that you really enjoy.  The first two weeks you’re doing a lot of research and trials and it takes a real commitment to get out of your existing habits and rituals.  Once you get into it, after three to four weeks, you find new favorites that you really look forward to. They take the place of the favorites that you used to look forward to when you were hungry or tired, your comfort foods.  The other benefit of committing to three to four weeks is that you not only find new favorites and develop a routine, but you also feel great which helps keep you motivated to keep up with your diet.  I personally was seeing great results in the gym, lost a good 10 lbs., started to see my abs again, and started seeing those other results that kept me motivated.  Your body really starts looking forward to the new type of food, and also starts feeling the effects of the foods you used to eat.

Do you have something in your diet that you can’t live without – a favorite?
It’s easy for me being one of the owners of The Veggie Grill.  I eat there about 7 times a week and cycle through several of the sandwiches and salads.  It’s hard for me to answer that because I have several favorites from The Veggie Grill.