Students + Campus

Eating green leads entrepreneur to start restaurant chain

Veggie Grill co-founder and Anderson alum shares tips

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T.K. Pillan, Baghwan Chowdhry and Bhavna Sivanand
UCLA

T.K. Pillan, co-founder of Veggie Grill (center), shared some lessons he learned about starting a business with Anderson professor Baghwan Chowdhry and Bhavana Sivanand, director of social innovation and initiatives at Anderson.

T.K. Pillan, co-founder of Veggie Grill, is passionate about the future of food.

After exiting a successful business in e-commerce following graduation from UCLA Anderson in 1996, Pillan began reading about the dismal state of health and wellness in the United States and our increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals to address these issues. Buoyed by a strong belief that there must be a better way to get healthy, he set out to start a business that would address the lack of delicious, convenient, healthy dining options.

Although he wasn’t vegan at the time, he found plant-based food oddly satisfying after eating at every healthy restaurant he could find. The result of eating green was that he lost 20 pounds and his cholesterol levels dropped from 204 (borderline high) to 140 (optimal). Using planning frameworks and market research methodologies he had learned at Anderson, Pillan also spotted a problem: Non-vegetarians were reluctant to enter a vegetarian-branded restaurant.

“This tastes great, but it feels like I have to be vegetarian to come in to eat” was the general consensus among Pillan’s friends. So he set out to package this flavorful food in a fun way— and promote plant-based-food consumption. 

Nearly a decade later, Veggie Grill has grown from a single restaurant in Irvine, California, to 29 eateries across three states. Pillan now sits on the board of Veggie Grill and has gone on to co-found a venture fund focused on the plant-based, natural-product movement. Recently he sat down at an Anderson event to share his perspectives on how he became a successful entrepreneur with Anderson professor Baghwan Chowdhry and Bhavna Sivanand, Anderson alumna and director of social innovation initiatives at Anderson’s Price Center for Entrepreneurship and innovation. 

The key to forging forward — even with critics on the sidelines — is a belief in your passion.
The transition from tech to the food industry was tough for Pillan. There were many naysayers who doubted his idea, but his six-month transition to a vegan strengthened his beliefs in improving his health through diet. 

Alongside a passionate partner, Pillan built this business from the ground up, focusing his energy on the menu, marketing approach and platform. They strongly believed that their business would meet market demand and cross over from niche to mainstream. Countless iterations later, their instincts paid off. Veggie Grill now has a customer base of 70% non-vegetarians.

Bootstrapping a business can help prepare you for the big leagues.
Bootstrapping a business — starting a business without external help or capital — allowed Pillan to get funded when the time was right. Pillan stresses the importance of “doing everything within your power to move the minimum, viable product forward” before getting funded. For Veggie Grill, that was determining what worked on their test menu. 

Veggie Grill was very different from Pillan’s previous venture: It was a capital-intense restaurant business that did not have as much flexibility for change as in technology. “You have to be ready for launch before you launch,” Pillan says about the restaurant business. 

Pillan also attributes his success to bringing on a good restaurant partner who had worked in the restaurant business for years and had the necessary operational expertise to make Veggie Grill successful.

Startups are the ultimate business challenge — be willing to make sacrifices.
“Young, single, not in debt” is how Pillan describes his personal situation when he started on his first venture. For Veggie Grill, a lot more was at stake: He had a house and a family. A failed entrepreneurial undertaking would take away his Manhattan Beach lifestyle and entail a relocation to Irvine to help out with his very first restaurant. “If you’re willing to live with that worst-case scenario given the upside, then that is a risk worth taking,” Pillan says. 

A well-thought-out growth strategy is important.
Investing in the right franchising is important for Veggie Grill. Pillan cites Subway as the most successful franchise, yet he recognizes the difficulty in training restaurant staff in preparing plant-based foods. Veggie Grill has focused expansion on the West Coast, predominantly in California, where there is a real demand for health-conscious food. “Different regions have different psychographics,” Pillan says. Veggie Grill has adopted a slow-growth strategy, carefully plotting out the next steps in expansion.

Every business that has created long-term impact has social impact
“The nice thing about creating a business that has a social impact is that it is easy to get people to rally around your cause,” Pillan says. “When your employees and team members believe in what you are doing they will support you. At the end of the day, you need a product that has a value proposition that can stand on its own.”

This is an edited version of a story running on the UCLA Anderson website.

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