T.K. Pillan: Building a Veggie Empire
21 June 2022
T.K. Pillan’s passion for plant-based eating led him to jump head-first into the vegan industry. Hear from him as he shares his journey and learnings in turning Veggie Grill into the largest vegan fast-food chain in the U.S. and how TiNDLE’s incredible flavor and versatility has made his favorite dishes possible.
This episode is hosted by Nicole Astra.
Listen to more of the Ridiculously Good podcast here.
Read the full transcript of the episode below:
Nicole Astra: TK, years ago you are in tech, living your life with zero experience in the food industry, and yet you decided to open a vegan restaurant. I’ve heard you say, “My passion outweighed the logic why I should not.” Why so determined?
T.K. Pillan: I think it was certainly a step-by-step process. It started with me looking at what was going on with health and wellness in the United States and wanting to help create a solution for it. I always knew through influence from my mother who was a holistic practitioner, registered dietician, food-is-medicine type person, that there was a way to prevent illness through food, rather than treating it through pharmaceuticals and everything else that was going on.
That was the first step, and then I honed onto, “Hey, you can’t even go out to eat and find delicious and healthy convenient food,” and I ate out a lot, so I was kind of the target customer, where I needed quick, easy food and didn’t want to sacrifice that, but never felt great about my options. So that just, for whatever reason stuck with me, that’s a fundamental problem and a piece of American culture that I would like to solve.
Then, I took the step and realised how would I solve that, that led me into plant-based, that led me into, wow, plant-based can be delivered in a very simple, healthy, convenient format in sandwiches and burgers with some of these new meat alternatives that were coming out. And two, through my research, I discovered it really was a lot healthier and I became a plant-based eater and had great results, and then once you start diving into some of the research, you learn about factory farming and the devastation it creates both for the environment and the animals and the fact that you can actually, it’s better for people as well.
I get to a point where it’s like I have to do this. It’s just we can create so much impact if we can get more people to adopt plant-based eating more of the time, by delivering it in a new fun cultural way. I thought there was a big opportunity, but that opportunity was going to take a lot of work given my background when I was ready to give it a shot.
Nicole: And again, TiNDLE likes people who are just crazy enough to make these giant success stories. Tell me, that was in 2006? Is that correct?
T.K.: 2005. 2005 was when I started on my journey and then we started the first Veggie Grill in 2006.
Nicole: Okay, so from 2006, to now you’re in multiple states, dozens of stores. Give me your quick stats.
T.K.: 33 locations across the country, growing to close to 40 by the end of this year. We are in six states both on the East and West Coast and also in Chicago, so we are around the country.
Nicole: And the largest restaurant company I. understand. Vegan company.
T.K.: The largest, yes.
Nicole: So, I love so many things about your approach but one thing I briefly mentioned was that, you just, you kind of said it to, you are the right demographic. You embraced what the American culture was doing, what we are about, which for better or worse is we want it be – convenient and convenient to us means fast. And so instead of trying to change that you tried to interject a new business model into it. Why did you think vegan menus would be successful?
T.K.: You know, I did some of my early research around the fact that people were starting to wake up to how unhealthy some fast foods was. And Whole Foods was just starting to emerge as a very successful grocery chain in the organic foods industry, was just starting to grow quite rapidly, much more rapidly than the conventional food industry. So, I was seeing people were just starting to wake up, and when I discovered all the benefits of plant-based I said, well this should be next. Logically, this is a better way to eat and discover it and see, they don’t have to make a sacrifice from a taste and convenience standpoint that people will adopt it. And so that was the bet and luckily it has worked out.
Nicole: So that brings me onto what else I really like about this approach. Something we really talk about at TiNDLE is that gastronomy approach – if you get the product in the hands of a trained chef so that the first culinary experience is fantastic – they will come back. You know you can put healthy in front of anyone but are you going to make them chose it? So, you are giving people that, “Let’s just try it, just try it,” and then you blow them away. And you know I think the industry in the last few years is really realising that’s what it’s about. It’s giving that meat eater that soft place to land to try and make that flexible or traditional, or transitioning choice, but what are you guys doing specifically to ensure that customers repeat their patronage?
T.K.: Well yeah, I think you just said it. It has to be great, and it has to be without sacrifice. And there is a lot of people who love the taste of meat. Meat is concentrated protein and some fat and flavour mixed in. And what we discovered back in 2006, with the right veggie protein and right flavours and right prep and marinades and all the different sauces and toppings etc. there is no sacrifice, but it can’t just be a veggie burger thrown on a bun with veggie and ketchup. It has to really be the right form factor and prepared in the right way, and it’s great that TiNDLE, along with a lot of other companies have taken that forward quite a bit since 2006, continuing to innovate different techniques to continue to replicate different forms of meat in an extremely compelling way. And so, we’re at that point now and it’s great.
Nicole: And now, you been doing this for a long time. Can you verbalize when you saw some of this shift enter as far as the plant-based movement, that rise of the flexitarian?
T.K.: Sure, I think there has been a sequence of steps that I have seen that have really kind of helped us. There is kind a general growth based on awareness and adoption. But there are these moments that I have seen that have been step changes in terms of awareness, and then trial and then adoption. ‘Forks over Knives’ was an early documentary that opened a lot of people’s eyes to the health benefits of plant-based. And then products like the Beyond burger took a big step forward to help people get really curious, like that should be something I should try. And then there have been other documentaries like ‘Cowspiracy’ and ‘Game Changers’ that have made a big difference. And now TiNDLE is here so I hope TiNDLE will help create that next big step change.
Nicole: So, do you think it boils down to, when we know better, we are doing better? It’s a lot of education a lot of awareness.
T.K.: Yup, and then it’s also the products – really delivering compelling experience where there is no sacrifice and that’s getting better every month, and so we are getting there. We are getting there.
Nicole: So, when you first started in the restaurant business, vegan, you know, quote, was really gaining traction. And it was expensive to live that way in some areas, it’s still expensive to live that way. Even worse, 30 years ago, I would go as far as to say it was coastal. So, the options for me in the Midwest, that mindset migrating in were almost nothing kind of growing up with a vegan vegetarian lifestyle, many moons ago. But I wonder if that consumer shift translates to an ease of doing business. I mean, it’s expensive to live that way two decades ago, 15 years ago, was it even more expensive to run a business that way?
T.K.: Well, we’ve come a long way and we are coming closer and closer but the government still supports and subsidies a lot of what helps keep meat and dairy a lot less expensive than the alternatives. But, we continue to do our best to innovate and create food that creates value.
But right now, you have to appreciate the value that plant-based gives you personally and be willing to pay a little bit more for it. And that value obviously is health, and secondly it is living in a way that you can be proud of – both from the treatment of animals and also helping to preserve our planet. So, we still have some work to do, running our business, it’s a challenge – we got to compete with all the meat and dairy companies that can get their food at a lower cost and provide it at a lower cost.
So, we have to do a lot more to market it – to really get more people to give it a try. And then hopefully once they try it – and there is a lot of people out there helping with the awareness of why they should try it and why they should keep eating plant-based as much as possible, but we need continued innovation, right, for companies like TiNDLE that help create less expensive products. We need continued demand from consumers that provide companies like Veggie Grill and TiNDLE to be able to keep innovating. And we need the government to hopefully come on board and support some of the innovation and job creation that plant-based can help provide.
Nicole: Well… and I will say to our listeners, that in my research to talk to you, I tooled around with some of the menus and it’s not that much more expensive than say a mid-level fast food restaurant. I think your price points are right on the money and I think that’s proof that we are going in the right direction like you said.
T.K.: Sure, well great, and yeah we do a lot of work. We can’t use every product out there; we can’t do everything. Some of the kind of, I would call them, more higher-end vegan type restaurants, you know, they serve a different audience. We are here to make it as fun, friendly, approachable, and accessible as we can. We really do focus on delivering our food at a certain price point.
Nicole: eah, give me a couple of buzz words for each of the restaurants. Bring me through Veggie Grill, Moss Burger and Stand-Up Burger.
T.K.: Yup, Stand-Up Burger.
Nicole: Yeah, so give me the differences between those and maybe your favourite menu item for each one.
T.K.: Ok, well, they all start and serve the underlying purpose we have at Veggie Grill, which is to change the American food culture for the better. And then underneath that we are here to deliver the best the plant-based world has to offer within traditional popular American restaurant themes.
So, the first theme is the American grill which is Veggie Grill and we have American grill favourites, sandwiches, burgers, bowls and salads. Moss Veggies Vegan Taqueria is a vegan taqueria. It is your Mexican favourite. Your tacos and burritos but delivered with the best selection you can get in the plant-based world. It’s not just a bean burrito, we have five different hearty fillings.
It’s just like Veggie Grill is not just a veggie burger, we’ve got seven different sandwiches, eight salads and bowls, sides, appetisers, and desserts. And then Stand-up Burgers is the classic, good, old-fashioned American burger stand, burgers and shakes, it’s not about health – it’s about enjoying yourself a burger and a shake but doing it in a way that’s a little healthier because there is no cholesterol and no animal fat, but more importantly isn’t harming the animals and you are standing up for a future and a planet that can sustain itself.
So, all three are going to deliver the best the plant-based world has to offer, and Stand-Up Burger has five different indulgent burger bills along with our falafel burger and five different shakes. So, we are here to give people what they have always wanted and always had but in a plant-based form without sacrifice.
Nicole: Mmh-hm it’s all about the balance, right?
T.K.: Yes, that’s right.
Nicole: What about popular menu items at each one?
T.K.: So Veggie Grill, I am a big fan of our Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. That’s one of our go-to’s when I’m looking to kind of enjoy myself a little more. But I also a lot of the time try to eat healthier so I’m having my Kale and Quinoa Power salad and adding tempeh on top or our Masala Bowl. We also have a Steakhouse burger that is indulgent, and I like to splurge on a bit. Moss veggies vegan Taqueria, our Tahana Bowls I probably my go to there. And, stand up burger it’s the OG burger, you know getting ready to have one – I don’t have one close to me right now but I will do in 14 days or so.
Nicole: Not that you’re counting or anything, T.K. You know you’re not supposed to go to the grocery store while you’re hungry. Well, do not listen to the Ridiculously Good podcast while you are hungry folks because this is the stuff we start to dig in on. You mention part of the mission and embedded in that statement is giving back and TiNDLE certainly wholeheartedly believes in that. Why is that important to you?
T.K.: We are here to help show that capitalism is the solution to a better future. And capitalism and business is the most sustainable way to make change good or bad. So, we’re here to be a force for good and we’re doing that through the food we serve but we also want to do that in other ways and where we partner with quite a few non-profits like Mercy for Animals and Farm Sanctuary and several others, creates a green that helps educate school kids in elementary through high school in ways they can take environmental action and help preserve the future.
So yeah, we’re here to really be a force for good. And of course we have to deliver great food at a profit, but we want to do it in a way that helps us really walk the walk in terms of making the world a better place.
Nicole: You know, and I do want to know. I want to talk profit. But let’s be there for a sec.
T.K.: And I will say we’re talking before we’ve rolled out our TiNDLE chicken sandwich. So that could hit my favorite mess pretty, pretty soon.
Nicole: Oh, and let me tell you, it will. It absolutely will. Have there been some memorable moments from for you, rewarding moments of service through those partnerships?
T.K.: Yeah. It’s really working with all the people. Like, there’s so many great people who are doing great things and really passionate about making the world a better place. And that’s, I think, probably my biggest satisfaction or one of the biggest ones. And having jumped into the Veggie Grill and been on this journey is there’s a lot of people out there trying to do the right thing. And so that that’s what’s great. It’s great to work with them and be part of that.
Nicole: Yeah. Now let me talk about profit because, you know, everyone sees, oh, success and oh, you know, 30 something restaurants throughout the States. This is a hard business. We talk about this a lot on the podcast as well. It it’s not necessarily a very profitable business. Restaurants, can you speak to your experience in the last two decades on that?
T.K.: Sure, sure. Nothing. I was just talking to an aspiring restaurateur and a plant-based on the flip side. And it’s a labor of love here, really. It’s not easy. There’s easier ways to, I think, make a living. But yeah, this is extremely rewarding when you’re successful. And so we’ve had to really grind it out here and running restaurants and picking the right locations, building them out, hiring the right people, making sure they’re delivering consistently every day, making sure the environment is the way it should be.
It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of work. But the end result is really satisfying when we see people walk in at a Veggie Grill – families, young people, people, cool people, hip people, the old hippie vegans all coming in and really enjoying the food and really glad that you exist and bringing their friends and family and telling me that, hey, I brought my non-vegan friends here and now they’re much more open to eating vegan salad now becoming vegan because I showed you how great it could be – that is why we’re here. That’s kind of that labor of love.
But we’re here to be, you know, we make more impact by being successful and growing. So we’re here to create a much larger business and create impact across the country and hopefully even across the world.
Nicole: And with growth, every company inevitably comes to that point where. They lose some control of that core. You know, we do our best to multiply the life of the leader, right? That’s a fundamental practice. But at some point, you just cannot be everywhere. You can’t control. And you mentioned consistency and particularly in food service. That’s so important. But how have you managed that struggle with the growth that you’ve experienced?
T.K.: Sure. Yeah, I think it’s all about making sure you have a clear purpose and vision and values. And I think we’re very clear on what that is. And then it’s our job to make sure everybody in the organization understands it and embraces it. And that starts with hiring and training and that continued management. And we don’t always get it right. But we, I think, do a pretty good job to make sure our team is fully aligned with what we’re here to provide in the world and how we’re going to do it. It takes day to day, continued reinforcement and effort and correction. And there’s a lot of companies, restaurant chains specifically, that have hit a certain wall where they don’t have the right people aligned to keep recreating that experience and magic that maybe made the first set of restaurants successful. So that’s our challenge with each restaurant and each new region that we grow into. We have to make sure we stay true to that.
Nicole: Do you find that there is a magic ratio between adjusting to a new region and holding steadfast to who you guys are? I mean, I would assume holding fast or to who the restaurant is, would be the winner there. But have you seen that in different regions and consumers calling for different desires and traditions?
T.K.: Not for us. I mean, our job is to deliver the same experience. Coast to coast? Yeah. Somebody who’s a veggie girl in Boston or New York or L.A. or Seattle or Portland or North Cal, they’re getting the exact same experience. And so that’s what we do. And it’s about making sure we have the right people, the right systems and process to make sure that happens. Right.
Nicole: And what about some missteps along the way? What can you tell us about some of the lessons you’ve learned through failure?
T.K.: Sure. I would say, as you grow, it’s all about people and it’s all about people who are aligned with that vision and those values. And any time I’ve seen or kind of have rationalized and maybe compromised some of the values based on experience and expertise, it just doesn’t work out in the long run. So I’ve learned that you really need to stay true to both and that’s going to be that’s the key to long term growth and success.
Nicole: Okay. So, considering long term growth and success, I also want to ask you about your entrepreneurship and investment experience. So tell me about PowerPlant ventures.
T.K.: Sure. PowerPlant is an investment fund helping to support both from a capital and expertise standpoint, visionary entrepreneurs who are creating majority primarily plant-based products. We also do some beauty and some other areas that we’ve expanded to but are creating products that help create a better future that are here to create… leverage plants and do things that are ethical and sustainable. And so similar to why we started Veggie Grill, we did the same thing with PowerPlant, which was to help support a better future through businesses that are proving that you can do that and helping to educate and empower consumers to do that. And so that in a nutshell, is what our plan is. And it’s been great to work with other entrepreneurs who have a similar passion and vision, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. So yeah, that’s been a very satisfying experience as well.
Nicole: Is there anything on the horizon that really excites you that you’re allowed to tell us about, at least, by way of what you are investing in or suggesting others to invest in?
T.K.: Well, I would say there’s just so much innovation growing up. You know, TiNDLE is such a great example of it, where we at Veggie Grill are really excited about some of the things we can do with TiNDLE that we haven’t been able to do with any other alternative chicken product. So we’re really excited about the new barbecue chicken sandwich and the Chinese chicken salad. And so that’s great, but there’s a lot more of that happening. And we just rolled out a great new avocado bacon croissant sandwich, which you never had a vegan croissant or vegan bacon taste the way this one does. And that’s actually one of my new favorites. So there’s just every different form factor in the meat and fish and dairy category is being, I think attacked from a plant-based and even cultivated. I was like, how do we get animals out of this? How do we stop destroying the planet and destroying the oceans? So it’s happening and we just, you know, PowerPlant hopefully is helping to make it happen more quickly. Entrepreneurs are doing a great job at tackling these problems, but it’s happening and it’s happening in every single category. Sofrom shrimp, salmon to chicken to deli meat to whole cut steaks. So it’s exciting.
Nicole: There are a lot of exciting technologies in food coming up. So, from my perspective as the layman, 2017, 2018, 2019, there was kind of that plant-based boom. More sales were happening, great products landing on the market, you know, exponentially on the rise. Do you see that market share growth continuing after pandemic? Can we project that we’re going to kind of stay in that growth?
T.K.: I think so. I think certainly I’m not covering my eyes to you know, some of the staffs that have shown slower growth, but I went through a similar situation in my first career when I started an e-commerce firm in the mid-nineties, and the industry grew extremely rapidly along with the company I started and then the dot com bubble burst with too much money and too much hype surrounded everything. And we had the dot com crash in 2000, 2001, and a lot of companies went out of business, and everybody cut back. But then by five to ten years later, all those companies existed again because we got ahead of ourselves in terms of the ubiquitous access to the Internet and what that would enable people to do, which clearly is here today. And so, I think this first wave of plant-based grew very rapidly in a lot of people. And we’ve kind of hit this, we hit a low point where we kind of hit that first wave. And now the second wave is being worked on right now, both from a product standpoint and an awareness standpoint. But when I started my e-commerce company, I fundamentally believe back in ‘95 that the Internet provided a better way to do business. And that certainly proved true. And I fundamentally – and a lot of people would agree with me – plant-based is a fundamentally better way to eat for the health of ourselves and the planet. And I’m not saying everybody has to be vegan, but hopefully we’ll get to a point where everybody is eating primarily plant-based. And so I’m a believer just based on, over time, I think we have an efficient system that brings better products and better solutions to the forefront.
Nicole: So, I want to share something that I think is concerning statistics, but you have such a diverse perspective on this industry and really have seen it from so many different angles. So let me just read, 41% of land in the continental U.S. is used to feed livestock compared to the 4% used to grow food that we eat. In your opinion, what is problematic about those numbers to a nutritious and sustainable future?
T.K.: Yeah, so there’s a lot of problems with that. One is, there’s people going hungry in other countries, and we could be providing a lot more food to those people if we didn’t use all that land and effort to feed cows then to feed people here in the US. And so, you know, that’s a problem. And then the amount of land and water they use is just way more than you would need if most people were eating primarily plant-based. And we’re maybe just getting specially sourced meat from sustainable farms that can, you know, put animals into factory farms. This process is carrying across the world where we’re destroying the Amazon to do the same thing to a cattle graze and get fed and then pollute, you know, both from a greenhouse gas standpoint and just waste water. And it’s pretty clear we’re going to run out of planet if we don’t change that one, we could feed a lot more people. But two, we’re just going to run out of planet. And so, it’s hugely problematic and we need it quickly, as quickly as possible, make the shift. And so that’s why hopefully between TiNDLE and Veggie Grill and everybody else out there trying to help people do this. We can get there more quickly.
Nicole: T.K., what makes you a Ridiculously Good proprietor
T.K.: So I would say, it starts with passion and then there’s self-awareness. You understand what you’re good at and what you’re not good at and surround yourself with people who bring those complementary skill sets to the table but are aligned with you on passion and vision and values. So, I think that in a nutshell, that ultimately is the key – passion and certain skill set that I bring to the table, but then self-awareness to understand what I need other people to do and where I bring the most value.
Nicole: And you’ve mentioned some of those key partnerships, too. So not to make light of the ridiculous success that you have experienced in a number of different sectors. But I’m going to venture to say one of your biggest accomplishments is surviving a household that is all women. Am I right?
T.K.: Certainly, keeps me humble for sure.
Nicole: I do. I want to talk about the women in your life, because I would venture that much of your inspiration is making the world a better place for the people that you love. And I read about your mom’s recent passing. Wanted to give you my condolences, but I’ve read that her strength and wisdom really was an inspiration to you. So, tell me about her.
T.K.: Sure. Well, thanks. Thanks for the thoughts. She was strong. She was not afraid to go against conventional wisdom. And so, she’s the one who was really helpful for me to grow up with parents who had immigrated from India and had lived in a different culture. And then my mother, who was so well educated on nutrition and registered dietitian working at nursing homes, helping, but at the same time helping those who wanted to be helped through diet and food to help cure their elements. She did that and she shared that with me and always, always encouraged me to eat less meat.
But at the same time, I was a skinny Indian kid growing up in Boston in the seventies and eighties, and they didn’t want to force too much on me. So, they let me adopt a more of a standard American life and diet. And so, I was playing baseball and basketball and eating burgers and fried chicken and being a classic American kid. But as my awareness and enlightenment grew from a plant-based standpoint, it was easy for me to make that shift and say, okay, I get it. This is a better way to eat.
And my mom had been telling me about this, but now I see the real data and clinical evidence coming to light. But at the same time, I know how standard Americans… like I have that palate. And I knew that, hey, you know, giving them it in rice and other traditionally vegetarian dishes, which some people like, isn’t going to hit Americans the way you could if you gave it to them with burgers and fried chicken and shakes.
And of course, we want to do salads and bowls for the healthier eaters, but Americans love what they love and I’m one of them. And so, it’s this great combination of east-west that I think I’m proud to have in my background and I think is really inspiring, Veggie Grill, and that that eastern side really started with my mom’s influence.
Nicole: Well, just a huge congratulations to you on the growth and the impact that what you’re doing has made. You know, again, it’s the largest chain and look how far we’ve come. And you’re such a big part of that. So not only congratulations but thank you and thank you for your time on the podcast as well.
T.K.: Oh, sure. Yeah. Well, it’s always great to speak with other people who are helping to spread the spread the good word. And it’s been fun. So, thank you.
Nicole: Well, before I let you go, I always buttoned down with a few final questions. But you get to choose which you like the easy or the hard road out of here today, sir?
Nicole: Oh, you know what? Not many people pick the hard road, so I say, let’s do it.
Nicole: How do you handle disappointment?
T.K.: I always try and put things in perspective, count my blessings, control what I can control and do my best. And if I can do that, I can look at myself in the mirror and just say, “Hey, I did the best I could with the cards I had.” And so that’s how I try and frame it.
Nicole: What are you afraid of?
T.K.: I guess I’m afraid of… If this plant-based movement doesn’t succeed and hits a wall, what will happen to our future? But hey, I’m controlling what I can control and driving as much as I can drive. So, I don’t think it’s fear. It’s more worry.
Nicole: And you know, this this is what I’m picking up. But I want it to be extra clear to our listeners that you don’t mean because your businesses might fold. You might mean because our planet might be in real trouble. Am I right?
T.K.: Yeah. We got some issues, right? We see it every day in the news with what’s happening weather-wise. And, you know, we see that first-hand. Right. The climate just keeps getting warmer and warmer and we got to reverse it quickly. And the biggest thing you can do is change your diet.
Nicole: Yeah. Do you have a life slogan? Motto? Verse?
T.K.: Yeah. What goes around comes around.
Nicole: And what is something that the world needs more of?
T.K.: There’s an easy one, right? But I won’t say, Veggie Grills…Stand-Up Burgers.
Nicole: T.K. Pillan, you heard it here!
T.K.: The world needs more of… Empathy.
Nicole: Yeah, I would agree. It was a pleasure to meet you and talk with you. Thank you.
T.K.: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Nicole: And thank you for listening to the Ridiculously Good podcast, I’m Nicole Astra. Take care, talk soon.