Veggie Grill Faces Challenging Times With Good Food and Good Deeds

Veggie Grill Faces Challenging Times With Good Food and Good Deeds

By Fritz Nelson, editor-in-chief at Grow Wire


When Billie Eilish and her family are stuck at home, they apparently wish aloud for Veggie Grill's chocolate pudding parfait, a treat the company hasn’t had on its menu for a while. But when Billie Eilish asks, you bring it back.

Why? Partly because you don’t want to be a bad guy, do you? And partly because your corporate culture insists on being involved in community initiatives near your restaurants, and it just so happens that Eilish’s mom, actress Maggie Baird, started Support + Feed, an initiative to both help Los Angeles’s plant-based restaurants in need and deliver food to first responders and nursing home residents. If you’re Veggie Grill, you immerse yourself in such causes like a tempura-battered green bean.

Like so many restaurants, Veggie Grill has had to figure out its response to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Many small restaurants we’ve spoken with are wrestling with the financial implications, and although Veggie Grill is a 37-unit chain with about 1,000 employees, it’s not immune, especially since 50% of the fast casual restaurant’s business comes from customers who dine in.

What became clear in our discussion with the company’s CMO, Sarah Grover, is that the chain’s management knows it has to respond in ways that go far beyond figuring out curbside pickup and contactless transactions. Sure, it’s had to train its employees (sometimes over Zoom) about safety issues. Sure, it’s had to introduce value meals, with family portions and even alcohol, and list “10 items under $10” to remind customers it can provide good food for a good value.

But Veggie Grill didn’t stop there. 

A few weeks ago, Grover, who spent more than two decades at California Pizza Kitchen, hashed out some fresh ideas baked by her ad agency, High Wide & Handsome (which I mention by name only because . . . well, High Wide & Handsome). She began talking about restaurants coming together to lift the industry. After all, she reasoned, nobody eats at one restaurant every time: “If we band together, we’ll all rise together,” she said. 

So along came Panera and Cheesecake Factory and hundreds of others behind a campaign called The Great American Takeout, launched on March 24. Along came an outpouring of support, coverage from CNN and “Good Morning America” and all the feelgoods you could possibly feel. This was to be a one-time event, but things went so well, they tried again, and Grover reached out to Coke and Pepsi. Neither batted an eye.

The effort is now going on its fourth week, and big donors like Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods andVentura Foods have jumped aboard with support and money. The money raised goes to CORE (Children of Restaurant Employees) and RERF (Restaurant Employee Relief Fund).

Maybe this is how we emerge: We all rise together.

Watch our conversation with Grover in the video above. 

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Here’s the full transcript of our conversation with Grover:

Fritz Nelson: Really excited to be joined today by Sarah Grover. She's the CMO at Veggie Grill. Hi Sarah. Thanks for joining us today.

Sarah Grover: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Fritz Nelson: I think the explanation of what Veggie Grill does is maybe in the name, but for those, especially outside of California who may not be as familiar—although you guys have been in the news a little bit lately—maybe describe what Veggie Grill is.

Sarah Grover: Sure. Well, Veggie Grill is a 37-unit restaurant chain that is one hundred-percent plant based. We're the largest plant-based restaurant company. A majority of our restaurants are in California, but also recently opened in New York City and Boston and Seattle. So our positioning is that we make food that is good for our lives as well as good for our future.

Fritz Nelson: About what size? You said how many units, but can you say how many employees the company has?

Sarah Grover: Well, we've gone through a bit of a transition recently to adjust to the new situation. We have... Yikes. I think about a thousand employees at this point.

Fritz Nelson: Gotcha. I just wanted to give people a sense of the size of the company. And you yourself have the history in the restaurant world. Can you give us a little bit of a tour through that?

Sarah Grover: Sure. California Pizza Kitchen was my first position in the restaurant world in 1989, end of 1989, and we had about eight restaurants at that point and stayed for 25 years. I left when we had 250-ish around the world. I was hired by the founders who are former federal prosecutors, and we were sold to Pepsi. And then Pepsi sold us to a private equity firm, and the private equity firm took us public, and then we went private again—all throughout those 25 years. So I was the Legacy Marketing Executive from basically the beginning until four and a half years ago. After leaving CPK, I fell into a consulting opportunity with a chain that had just come out of bankruptcy, and they needed some assistance restructuring the team. So I was at Garden Fresh Restaurants for about a year helping out.

We sold the company to a family fund, and then shortly thereafter Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf asked me to come and join them in the same capacity to help reposition the business and help sell the company, which we did about a year ago. It’s interesting, but timing worked to my advantage, and I was asked to come in and help out at True Food Kitchen—which I did for just short of a year as the CMO was on maternity leave—and help out on a few strategic initiatives. So that ended when she came back from maternity leave. That was at the end of the year, and this Veggie Grill opportunity came up in January. So that's when I joined them to help as they were going through some management changes.

Fritz Nelson: Got it, thank you. Wow, that's quite a history. You've helped some pretty major brands, some of my favorites mixed into there. I want to talk about the current state of things right now in the world and the impact that it's having on your business, the restaurant industry as a whole. So Veggie Grill is more what I guess we would call a fast casual chain, meaning it's not full table service, but you're not fast food either. So how much of Veggie Grill's business relied on dine-in customers before this? How much of the business was it?

Sarah Grover: About 50% dine-in, 50% off-premise.

About 50% of Veggie Grill's business came from dine-in customers before the coronavirus closures. 

Fritz Nelson: Got it. So pretty big portion. And so when it first became clear early on in this crisis that restaurants were going to have to shut down as a place to dine in, what were some of the first thoughts that went through your mind and in the operator's minds and maybe what some of the first steps you guys decided to take?

Sarah Grover: Initially, our immediate focus was the safety of our employees and our guests. So we needed to review and retrain all of our employees as to the very specific measures that we have in place and anything additional that we needed to introduce. And that continues to change each day now with the introduction of masks for employees. So those were the kinds of things that we started with. Then, once we shut down the dining rooms, we introduced curbside service. We have third-party delivery, and we also have pickup—which we are trying very hard to provide a contactless pickup as most restaurants are doing these days as well. So those were the immediate shifts just to make sure that we were following all of the right protocol to keep everybody safe and healthy and then making it easy for the guests.

Fritz Nelson: And we've heard some of these elements from others as well. Doing contactless pick up requires some changes, whether it's just technology or protocols and things like that. How difficult has that process been? Or how easy maybe?

Sarah Grover: Well, it's an adjustment for sure. I'm not on the front line in the restaurants actually implementing this, but we have an incredible team. They're extremely passionate, and they recognize the importance of addressing all of these critical health issues. Being able to call in and say, “I'm here and pop your trunk,” so that they don't even have to interact. Rolling down the window on the opposite side. I mean, just things that are obvious. Those were the kinds of things that we insured were put in place.

Fritz Nelson: Yes, and I mean it's like one thing to say it, another thing to make it muscle memory for employees to do.

Sarah Grover: Yes. I've seen a lot of—not a lot, a few companies that have introduced technology free or at a very reduced price to help with all of this. It's wonderful to see everyone being so generous, but I think it's critical to get the basics right first before you try to implement anything additional that people are not familiar with as part of this transition.

Fritz Nelson: Yes. You mentioned that you had to look at employee changes, too. I imagine some of that meant retraining some employees that were working on the dine-in part into helping on the delivery/pickup/ordering aspect of it. Can you talk through a little bit of some of the changes you made on the employee side, and how you delivered some of that communication?

Sarah Grover: Well, Zoom and other FaceTime technology is really how we have done it. Now we have our operators, the regional operators as well as the managers are in the restaurants so they're able to translate what our head of training is going over with them and training again and retraining. So the things that I mentioned earlier, just taking the precautionary measures of gloves and masks and contactless delivery and curbside. As I said, that was not in existence until a couple of weeks ago. So we just moved quickly to get that in place to make it easy for the guests to pick up the food.

Fritz Nelson: Were there any changes that you made to the menu?

Sarah Grover: No. We were on the path to working on a new menu just in general for the company, and we decided that we needed to pause for a moment and get these critical elements in place with regard to safety around the coronavirus issues. But the menu as it is today is the same menu. Fortunately we already had a healthy off-premise business so we didn't have to make a lot of changes.

Veggie Grill didn't make any tweaks to its menu when it transitioned to takeout-only.

Fritz Nelson: Yes. So, we've talked about how such a large portion was in restaurant dining, but an equally large portion was already ordering online for pickup or delivery. So, you already kind of knew what worked, and I imagine that flows through to understanding things like inventory and what to stock and what not to stock, especially when we're dealing with more perishable goods here. So that probably changed a bit as well.

Sarah Grover: It did. I would say that what we did address with the menu is making sure that we put our value offerings forward in a time where everyone is uncertain about paychecks and what's happening in the world of savings accounts and being furloughed. So we introduced a family meal that is a special price as well as featuring alcohol, which can now be sold through takeout. And this week we have our 10 items that are under $10. So we want to make sure that people remember, our guests remember that we do offer a good value at a time like this

Fritz Nelson: Who doesn't like a good bottle of wine with some fried sweet potatoes?

Sarah Grover: Right.

Fritz Nelson: In terms of what you're hearing from your customers, what's been the feedback so far?

Sarah Grover: Our customers are very loyal. It's a wonderful community in the plant-based world as well as just the general population of people that like to eat great food that's good for you. And so they're thankful that we're still able to provide their favorite menu. We did hear from a very vocal supporter a few days ago, Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas, made a plea on her Instagram to bring back our chocolate pudding, which was taken off the menu I'm not sure how long ago. But we were able to mobilize and get it on the menu and made that family very happy. It also then introduced us to Billie and her mother's new charity called Support and Feed, which is providing plant-based meals to those in need in nursing homes and frontline responders and healthcare workers. And so we're participating with them in the coming weeks helping out with those efforts.

Fritz Nelson: Wow, that's fantastic. And I take a great segue into what are some of the things that you guys are doing outside of the normal course of business? Maybe we can start there and then we can talk a little bit about The Great American Takeout. But just generally, what is Veggie Grill's approach to these times? It sounds like you guys are very involved. Is that sort of part of the culture there?

Sarah Grover: Yes, we are very involved in each of the communities where we have a restaurant and immediately our managers and regional directors wanted to reinforce that community participation. And so they have been engaging with the local hospitals nearby. I know in Santa Monica in particular. St John's, we've been delivering on a regular basis to the ER. And I know many brands are doing that, which is fabulous. It's getting a little more difficult with how you can get through security, so they've set up a process to be able to deliver it right there at the entrance, and we're making a lot of employees and healthcare workers happy with our deliveries. So that's really been our primary focus is to find the areas that are in most need in the communities where we have restaurants.

Fritz Nelson: Tell us about The Great American Takeout, how that came into being and what Veggie Grill's involvement in it looks like.

Sarah Grover: Sure. Well it's interesting because just two and a half weeks ago this didn't exist, and we were sitting around in a brainstorm meeting trying to figure out what we needed to do to be able to reinforce Veggie Grill's value, as I mentioned earlier, and how we could just get the word out in this very difficult, crazy environment. And initially, I was noticing that there were a lot of letters from CEOs. That was the first iteration of marketing efforts, just reinforcing quality standards. And then it sort of became noise because every company in America was sending out a letter from their CEO. So I was thinking about this clearly an unprecedented situation that we're in, and I wrote up a concept basically, really that said, “If we as an industry are going to be here tomorrow, we need to band together and market ourselves as an industry, as one, really think about how we could do this in an unprecedented way.”

How great would it be if Veggie Grill is supporting Blaze Pizza, and Blaze Pizza is shouting out to Lazy Dog, and it becomes this infectious community that rises together. And so I gave this brief of an idea to my ad agency, High Wide & Handsome, and they came back literally 24 hours later, maybe not even that much time with several thoughts, several different hashtag ideas and the one that just spoke to me is “The Great American Takeout.” It really is a universal message that everyone in our industry can get behind. Nobody's going to eat at Veggie Grill every day. Nobody's going to eat it any place every single day, and therefore, we all will succeed if we band together. We'll all rise together. So from there really, High Wide & Handsome created the marketing materials, and we just started posting all of this on our social channels just on my LinkedIn and Facebook.

And I shared it with a lot of my restaurant industry CEO and CMO friends and asked them to share it. And the first week just exploded. We ended up getting interest from CNN and Good Morning America and the local LA TV stations, and it was really beyond our wildest imagination. And there were then restaurant companies contacting me to say are we're doing this again? Are we doing it again? So we thought about it and sales were much higher the day after we did this, and I heard that from many, many companies, and I was thinking we needed to do something a little different the second week to keep the interest. And if we were going to say, “We're all in this together,” it occurred to me: Well, what about Coke and Pepsi? They are archrivals, but again, they're in this together with us as an industry. So I contacted both companies and without hesitation, they both said we're in, you can include us, we want to support this initiative.

Veggie Grill played a big role in organizing the Great American Takeout, an initiative to support restaurants.

So that's why the second week their logos were prominently featured, and they tweeted us out on their social platforms to help generate more interest and get the word out even bigger. And the second week was just incredible. So much so that now we're doing it a third and a fourth week and perhaps beyond. But also what I didn't mention is that, the first week, we had a charity contact us with a big donor and said Smithfield Foods wants to contribute a huge sum of money, and we'll base it off of the number of tweets. For every tweet or share, they will donate $5 up to $100,000, and the money that we raise will go to CORE, which is Children of Restaurant Employees, which was exactly why we're doing this to begin with, to keep our managers and our employees employed as well as help take care of the families of those that have been furloughed.

So, from there, we have had a number of companies jump on board: Ventura Foods, and this week, we have Tyson Food who is jumping in and contributing, and we also are partnering with the National Restaurant Association's employee relief fund. And more and more companies are coming out of the woodwork because they see this as something that really fits all companies within the restaurant industry.

Fritz Nelson: That's fantastic. I am really just blown away by that. And maybe we can tell our viewers here how they can get involved in sharing. What is it that they need to share?

Sarah Grover: Well, we have a website, it's thegreatamericantakeout.com, and every week we upload all of the new assets, the marketing materials, sample posts and tweets that can be easily copied and pasted anywhere and shared. We encourage anyone in the industry to help us get the word out to all of our guests that are dining out or dining in through takeout. And so it's very simple.

Fritz Nelson: Great. And I'm just wondering, it might be a little premature to ask this question, but as you see some of this take off in such a big way, are there things that you and Veggie Grill and maybe others in the industry are learning and talking about that you might foresee becoming just standard part of how you do business beyond this crisis?

Sarah Grover: Well that's an interesting question. I think when people are passionate about what they do or the brands they're connected with, they'll rise to any occasion put in front of them. And that's been the biggest, really important learning out of all of this. To see that people want to make a difference. And when you're in a situation like we are in as a world right now and here in the United States, I think we're expected to think differently. And I imagine this will extend long after we're able to get back to our somewhat-normal lives, however long that may be. I'm not sure when that is, so we need to continue to be creative to help keep what we are able to do afloat.

Fritz Nelson: Fabulous. Well, thank you for all of your work in this industry and best of luck, and thank you for coming on to talk to us about it today.

Sarah Grover: Thank you for having me.