A decades-long journey through the restaurant industry, from washing dishes in Southern California, to stints at TGI Fridays, Pizza Hut and Baja Fresh, brought Greg Dollarhyde to Los Angeles-based Veggie Grill. The fast-casual restaurants feature indulgent 100% plant-based fare. The Veggie Grill’s claim to fame is its healthy slant — no trans fats, no hydrogenated oils and few sugars — that doesn’t skimp on quality or taste. “The myth we’re trying to overcome is bland, mushy sautéed vegetables, salads and bowls,” Dollarhyde says. “[At The Veggie Grill ] you get the combination of delicious food, fair price, a great crowd of people and a menu that really works.”
John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today hospitality and restaurateur rock star, Greg Dollarhyde. Greg, welcome to Green is Good.
Greg Dollarhyde: Mike and John, how are you doing?
John: We are great today in Fresno, California, and you’re down in the Manhattan Beach area?
Greg: Yeah, our headquarters are in Manhattan Beach and all our restaurants are located in Los Angeles.
John: Greg, we have you on today because you’re the CEO of Veggie Grill. We’re going to talk a lot about that on today’s show, but we want to talk a little bit about your fascinating journey throughout your career and how you got to where you are today. Your resume, I could spend all 23 minutes, literally, sharing with our great listeners out there your amazing resume, but I want you to share it instead. Your journey includes TGI Friday’s, Pizza Hut, and Baja Fresh before you ever got to become the CEO of Veggie Grill. Share with us a little bit about that journey.
Greg: I started out in southern California, washing dishes and prepping food, like a lot of people in the restaurant business. I know a lot of CEOs of restaurant chains that started out exactly the same way. They just got into the business, liked it, got bitten by the bug. Growing up from there, I ran kitchens and ran restaurants as general manager, and had a chance to go work for a chain called Victoria Station a long time ago. I ran into one of the founders, and he said, “You can come work for us. I think you’ve got to back to school,” because I hadn’t finished college. They talked me into going to Cornell, and I went to the Cornell Hotel School and the Cornell Business School. After that, my horizons really opened up. My eyes really opened up. I grew up pretty much on the beach in Southern California, and going back to Ithaca, New York with my sandals. I learned a lot about what business was about. I was able to take that experience in the restaurant business, as well as the training from Cornell, and landed as the Assistant to the President of TGI Friday’s when it had 19 restaurants. The reason I went there was because it was doing something no one was doing; it was huge volumes, very popular, and the fern bar business was a big hit. It was back in that sort of magical period in the United States, after birth control and before AIDS, so you could imagine TGI Friday’s back in those days was one of the places to be. That’s how it started, then I just stayed in the business the whole time. I was trying to create value and look for opportunities for growth. I really loved the growth business. That’s where you have the most fun and you watch people build their careers and build their fortunes in growth.
John: Greg, how far did you take TGIF? How many locations when you exited TGIF?
Greg: When I left TGI Friday’s, they had 125 locations on its way to being 40 different countries and the like. There have been many successive presidents after that.
John: And, then Pizza Hut. What did you do over at Pizza Hut, and why did that add to the great experience that you have?
Greg: What I learned there was just throughput. I worked in delivery while I was a general manager and vice president of new concept development for Pizza Hut. What that meant was trying to get pizza into different places, like in stadiums and malls and drive-thru units. We were testing a lot of different formats for Pizza Hut, but the most successful format that I was responsible for was the airports. We had just started going to airports, and now it’s hard to go to an airport and not find a Pizza Hut and a personal pan pizza. That program we were rolling out with Marriott, which was host at the time, and also trying to figure out whether you can do little pizzas in a stadium in a sleeve and take it back to your seat and enjoy a pizza. That’s rapid throughput. You’re at halftime. Here you go. You better have the food ready and get it moving. That was a great experience for me. Also, delivery units where you’re dealing with a whole different animal. You get pizzas out in 12 minutes and get them in a car and get them to someone’s house hopefully 30 minutes from the time they call. I learned a lot about systems and throughput. At the time, PepsiCo was a 200,000-employee company, so there was a lot to learn.
John: Wow. And, then you ended up at Baja Fresh.
Greg: Yeah, we bought Baja Fresh with the financial partners on the East Coast. I led the team to buy Baja from Jimmy Magglos when he founded it 10 years before, taking a third trust deed out on his house and a loan from his mom to start the first Baja Fresh. It’s one of those great success stories. I met Jimmy back in 1997. He wanted to get some money off the table, so we bought 80% of the company from him in ’98. We went from 30 restaurants to about 270 in four years, and then we ended up selling it to Wendy’s. When we were getting ready to go public, Wendy’s made an offer we couldn’t refuse, all cash, $285 million. It was time to let them take the reigns.
John: Again, a great brand. My kids love that place, my wife and I love it. You could eat very healthy there. Now, we’re seeing sort of the migration in your journey. Start sharing with our listeners, please, Greg, the Veggie Grill story and how you ended up to be the CEO. Obviously, you really are a hospitality rock star. Talk about meeting the founders and how you saw that this is the future of food.
Greg: I have a million things about Veggie Grill that are fantastic besides the guys who founded it, but basically, in the early nineties, I started seeing that in the restaurant business there was this new way of eating called good food fast. It wasn’t called fast casual back then. What it was, unlike fast food, QSR food with drive-thru and heat-lampy kind of food and the like, it wasn’t really good back in the late eighties and early nineties. Then you had casual theme like Friday’s and Applebee’s and all that. They were sit-down restaurants with hostesses and waiters. This was the way of eating that was coming around where you go to a counter, get much better food than fast food, but not have to deal with servers and bartenders and hostesses and all that in a sit-down restaurant. This fast casual thing really got me interested in the business because it’s smaller footprint, less investment, but you still have great food and a lot of satisfied customers. That’s what Baja Fresh was, fast casual. The company that was running Zoë’s Kitchen is fast casual. Chipotle, one of the most popular restaurant formats today in America, is fast casual. Veggie Grill is the same thing. You have fantastic food, fast casual, but with a really important twist, and that is that the food is incredibly delicious and indulgent, like rich, but it’s 100% plant based, no butter, no eggs, no animal fats, no trans fats, no high-fructose corn syrup, nothing, all really clean food. So, I got introduced to Pillan and Kevin about a year-and-a-half ago. I was out looking at restaurants, especially in fast casual, and some friends of ours introduced us. I went down to their second restaurant they had down in El Segundo, and was blown away by the food. This is amazingly good for the fact that it’s 100% plant-based. When you think of vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based food, you think of bland, mushy bowls of food, a lot of salads and that kind of stuff. But this was burgers, fries, fried chicken sandwich formats, beautiful salads that would be the envy of Cheesecake Factory, and it was all in this 2,500-square-foot restaurant. They were cranking it out of this little tiny kitchen. I was blown away. Of course, my investment and other restaurateur juices got going, and I said, “What are you guys doing with this?” They invited me onto their Board of Advisors last summer, and I made a small investment in the company. They wouldn’t let me make a very big investment because they didn’t need that kind of money. Then this winter, they invited me onto the Board of Directors, and I knew they were talking about taking this thing to the next level, and I said, “What are you guys going to do for a CEO?” They said, “It’s funny, we were going to ask you the same question. What are you doing?” So, conversations kept going, and pretty soon we realized we could strike a deal that everybody would win. I’m really excited about what the future of this brand looks like.
John: I’m really excited for the country, too. For those who just joined us, we are so honored to have Greg Dollarhyde on. He’s the CEO of Veggie Grill. Mike and I have our webs open. If you’ve got your iPad or your laptop in front of you, open up to their great website, veggiegrill.com. I’ve got the menu in front of me. Mike, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving looking at this amazing menu here.
Mike Brady: That’s why I’ve been letting you do all the talking, John. I’ve been trying to not drool too much. Seriously, Greg, I’m looking this over. Number one, I’m looking at the price point. Your price point is right on, partner, with any restaurant. I’m looking at it, and it’s really right there, like any restaurant you go to, but what’s amazing to me, I look at these chicken dishes first, the picture of the chicken salad and all of that, and I’m thinking, “Wait a second, vegetarian chicken,” and I’m looking to see how it’s made, just a brief description, then go onto the menu. Not only Santa Fe Crispy Chicken, but you’ve also got the beef lovers taken care of. If they want to start to migrates towards a vegetarian way of eating, you’ve got carne asada there, the All-American burger, you’ve got veggie cheeseburgers, chipotle barbecue. This looks amazing, and like John, I’m really hungry and I wish we were sitting and doing this radio show inside your restaurant.
Greg: Some day, if you guys want to do a live remote, we’ll empty the place and you can fire it up. We’ll make you everything on the menu.
John: We might take you up on that. We’re not that far away from you. Honestly, this looks amazing. Talk about this. Vegan food is becoming the rage. From Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey, everyone is talking about vegan food now. I love eating vegan food, but share with our listeners, what’s the biggest myth, Greg? What’s the biggest hurdle that you have to overcome when you talk about plant-based vegan food?
Greg: First off is the guys. Educated women who are worried about how they look and how they feel, they get it right away. They come try it. They’re the early adopters. They’re the first ones. When we open up a restaurant in a new market, they’re the first ones in, and they know exactly what they want. They want an All Hail Kale salad, they want the lighter food, they jump right on it and they tell their friends. When you open up a Veggie Grill for the first time, you see a lot of women from the ages of 25 and 55, usually pretty well educated or very hip. They’re the first ones in. Then what happens is they start realizing that there’s food there for the guys. The guys are typically light on vegetarian food. They don’t want to eat a bunch of brown rice and sautéed vegetables. They want something that will stick to their ribs. This is what really got me most excited about Veggie Grill, besides I like the food, it’s very indulgent and delicious, but what I’m excited about was I was eating in these restaurants, and these restaurants have everybody in them from cops to yogis. I mean, you’ve got these big, burly policemen and they’re having a burger or a chicken sandwich, and they don’t know that it’s 100% plant-based. We don’t bother them with that bit of information. They don’t ask. They just eat the food and come and go. You have the yoga crowd and those people, they’re seeking out this great vegan-based food. The myth, I think, that we’re trying to overcome is that it’s just bland, mushy, sautéed vegetables and salads in bowls. Sometimes the vegetarian restaurants are slow and they’re expensive, so we try to make this fast and affordable. You all should get service in the dining room that you would get in any other fast casual, even a little more. People come by and we fill your tea, they take your plates, but there’s no tipping. You’ve got the combination of delicious food, fair price, great crowd of people, and a menu that really works across the section with people who are vegan and vegetarian over to, like I said, from cops to yogis. They’re in there.
John: We’re looking at this menu here. Chillin’ chicken, veggie steak, too good tempeh. I’m starving here. Is your chicken your biggest seller? What’s the secret to the chicken?
Greg: The biggest seller is the Santa Fe chicken sandwich. That’s the gateway drug, so to speak, to Veggie Grill. You walk in, and it’s funny because we’ll be in active centers, like near a Whole Foods or something like that, and people will stumble in, look at the menu, and you can tell they don’t know if they’re going to stay or not. We try to intercept them. We say, “I know this looks like maybe it’s complicated, but let’s make it easy for you. Just have a Santa Fe crispy chicken sandwich, and have the sweetheart fries, which are made out sweet potato. If you don’t like it, it’s on us.” Everybody takes us up on it. Nobody doesn’t take us up on that offer for a free lunch if they don’t like it. We buy so few free lunches because people taste it. I worked in dining rooms a lot. I love working in the restaurant during busy lunches and talking to the customers, and I’ve had more people than you would believe stop me and go, “I thought you guys were a vegan restaurant. Where did you get this chicken from? Why is this vegan?” It really is made from vegetable proteins in a very special way. It’s marinated with our secret recipe, and then we batter it with a certain kind of batter. We use coconut milk and the like, and it just works. It just tastes good.
Mike: You know what’s amazing? How many times have we heard, “Go ahead. Try it. It tastes like chicken.” In this case, it really does.
Greg: That’s right.
John: Greg, you’re right now in West Hollywood, LA’s Farmer Market, Santa Monica, El Segundo, Rolling Hills, Irvine; you’ve got a couple locations. You’re a guy with a big vision. You’ve done this over. You’re a serial entrepreneur with massive success in your rearview mirror, but with big dreams again. Where can you take this now?
Greg: We’re going to keep building our base in Los Angeles, but clearly, there’s a lot of this kind of eating up and down the West Coast. All the way from Del Mar to Seattle, people are eating more healthfully. I want to make this, and this is going to sound really cocky so I want to be careful, but I think we can be the West Coast phenomenon for this kind of food because, again, it’s very approachable. It’s burgers and fries and sandwiches and salads that you recognize. When you see them and taste them, you’ll love the flavors, but you’ll recognize it. It’s not weird. I think it’s going to catch on pretty well on the West Coast. That’s going to be our focus right now, to stay in this time zone and probably Scottsdale and then that market. Then, I think, the next market really would be the Northeast because there is a lot of demand. We get a lot of requests. When are you going to open it in this city? When are you coming to where you’re coming to? We do get, even though we’re six little restaurants on the West Coast, we do get when are you coming to DC? When are you coming to New York?
John: Boston, New York, I’m sure.
Greg: My two favorite markets on the East Coast are Manhattan and Washington, DC. People are educated, they’re hip, they’re forward thinking, they’re on the move, and that’s our kind of customer.
John: Greg, we have a picture of you here in the studio, and our listeners can see it up on our website, greenisgood.fm. You look like a healthy guy, but we love CEOs that not only talk the great talk, and obviously you’re extraordinarily articulate, but walk a great walk. Talk a little bit about the evolution of your own diet. Are you now a vegan?
Greg: Yeah, I’m a 99.9% vegan. It was funny. It started as a challenge when I started talking to Kevin and T.K. Pillan. They said, “Have you ever tried to eat vegan?” I said, “No, I eat healthfully. I eat a lot of fish. I don’t eat a lot of heavy fat-laden foods, but no, I’m not a vegan. My daughter is a vegan, but I’ve never done it.” They said, “Have you ever thought of just trying it?” I said, “OK.” They threw the gauntlet down, and I thought, OK, fine. I’ll give it six weeks. I ate 100% totally vegan for six weeks. I went down to the South Pacific for a surfing week and came back. I’d lost some weight. I still had my energy. It was funny because I expected to miss the protein; however, as you start doing some more research, you start realizing there’s plenty of protein in plant-based eating. What’s more important is there’s plenty of nutrients. It’s a much more nutrient-rich way of eating. One hundred calories of a kale salad is a lot different than 100 calories of bacon, even though the same is still 100 calories. I started to sort of get into it, then it started becoming a game. How can I eat vegan? Where can I go? I’m in an airport in Atlanta. What am I going to eat that’s vegan? Where am I going to go? How can I figure this out? Besides just having French fries because they’re vegan. It started to become more of a game than more of a way of eating. Our food guy, Ray White, who is really, really a food shaman as far as I’m concerned, he’s been doing this for 16 to 17 years in just plant-based, he said something to me that really caught my attention. “The more you eat this way, the more you want to eat this way. Your body actually starts to crave it.” I’ll be damned if he’s right. It starts to happen that way. I’m not going to say everybody has to. Most people I know want to eat in this kind of healthful way once in a while, but mainly people want to join. Food is one of the last things in life that you can really just sit down and have it your way and eat it and satisfy and enjoy yourself and enjoy it with friends. We don’t prophesize. We don’t say, “Your choices aren’t as good as this choice.” We just say, “This is a choice.” For me, it’s been a choice that, through Veggie Grill, I’ve been exposed to a lot more ways to eat plant based. I’m not missing anything.
John: That’s awesome. One of your taglines here on your website is The Perfect Indulgence. Speaking of indulgence, I have a big sweet tooth, and I see here carrot cake, chocolate pudding, chocolate chip cookies. How good are these desserts, and how do you make them without eggs and butter?
Greg: Yeah, that’s where Ray White comes in, the food magician. By way of a story, I had a birthday party for my girlfriend last summer, and I brought Veggie Grill’s carrot cake in. They can make it either in flat, small pieces that they use on a day-to-day basis, or they can make these great big cakes that you can use for a catered event or something like that. I got a couple of these great big cakes. There were 60 people there, and we started cutting up this cake and handing it around. I didn’t tell anybody it was plant-based, and everybody loved it. This is so good. Where did you get this? I started telling them this is vegan carrot cake. People look at you like, right. No way. The way the company does it is a way of using tofu for the carrot cake, tofu and natural vegetable oils and evaporated cane juice instead of sugar. We use agave syrup instead of honey because honey isn’t vegan. They found ways to blend these ingredients. It is amazing the amount of products that are coming out now that are plant-based that are so close to the real thing, like Tofutti cream cheese and things like that. We’re able to now have those ingredients at our disposal that 10 to 15 years ago weren’t even around. We stay in touch with the manufacturers, and we’re working always with a couple manufacturers to find ways to improve it. That’s how you do it. It’s natural vegetable oils, tofu. What you can do with soybeans now is just, frankly, amazing. All of our soybean products don’t have any GMO and that kind of thing.
John: Greg, we’re down to the last minute-and-a-half or so, and I just want to ask one last question. Talk about how Veggie Grill is good for the planet, besides good for our tummies.
Greg: In a couple ways. One, our business. We use all biodegradable plastic bags and all of our takeout material comes from recycled material and are recyclable. The floors of the restaurants are made out of sustainable bamboo. When we serve our wine, we don’t use bottles; we have these tanks that get refilled so we don’t have to add to the landfill. In a couple of our restaurants, we have people that come by and pick up our rice bran oil that we use for frying the fries and the like, and they use it in their car. We try to do stuff like that. That’s more like a local and store level, but on a bigger level, eating plant-based is much more sustainable than livestock. You know what’s going on in Brazil with the rainforest. They’re clearing the rainforest to raise cattle. There are massive amounts of petrochemicals being used to raise livestock. Methane gas is dramatically higher from livestock. In the long run on this planet, it’s not a sustainable way to live. We’re going to spend way too much economic inputs to make and grow that kind of food versus growing sustainable plant-based food. It’s like 10 times more efficient on the land to grow the same amount of protein for plant-based than livestock. We’re not busting anybody’s choices. I’ll tell you, in the old days, big old steak and a bottle of Cabernet, yum. However, when we disseminate 9 billion people on the planet, we’re going to have to be more creative.
John: Perfect. Greg, we’re going to have you back on because we know that you’re going to grow this amazing brand, Veggie Grill, like you’ve grown all the other brands you’ve touched before. For all our listeners out there, go to Greg’s website, veggiegrill.com. Find out where there’s a location near you, right now in Southern California, but soon in a city coming to you soon when Greg brings them there. Good food fast, veggiegrill.com. Greg Dollarhyde, you’re a hospitality and restaurateur rock star, but now you’re also a visionary eco-preneur and truly living proof that green is good.
Greg: Thanks, guys.