What Dishes are Winning at Plant-Based QSRs?

Restaurants in the plant-based space are experiencing a shakeout as operators recalibrate their menus to address persistent inflation and shifting consumer priorities.

Tens of thousands of restaurants have closed since 2020, and those that have remained open are grappling with economic pressures that threaten their viability. Food service outlets that serve vegan-only fare are particularly vulnerable to these challenges.

In August, Veggie Grill, the nation’s largest entirely plant-based restaurant chain, closed 12 restaurants — about 40% of its unit count —  in a move to “right size” their portfolio, reported Restaurant Business.

Since then, the chain has rolled out its “Veggie Grill 2.0” campaign. The Food Institute checked in with CEO T.K. Pillan to explore how the 17-year-old company is streamlining its menu to meet the needs of today’s consumers.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

2024 FoodBev Outlook

How would you sum up “Veggie Grill 2.0”?

Our mission has always been to make eating plant-powered food energizing, attractive, and convenient. Veggie Grill 2.0 is the modern evolution of that — balancing nutrient-packed whole plant protein powered dishes and planet-friendly comfort food.

Plant-based meat mimics have experienced significant headwinds this year. Have Veggie Grill customers been gravitating more toward whole-plant offerings versus meat analogues in 2023 or has demand remained relatively balanced? 

There really is a balanced demand for both whole-plant offerings and meat analogues amongst our customer base. However, that is a change from the past where our sandwich and burger sales led the way.

We started seeing [this shift] over the course of 2022, both in our sales and based on consumer feedback. People’s knowledge of plant-based has evolved over the years with those who place a higher priority on the healthfulness of their meals desiring less processed options, which does maximize the nutrient-density of their meals — as long as they are sticking to whole plant-proteins versus going back to animal proteins.

What are the most popular offerings on the menu and why do you believe they are sales leaders? 

With our VG 2.0 launch, we’ve seen a big tick up in our salad and bowl sales with our new Sesame Tofu Supergreens Salad leading the way for those looking for whole plant-powered protein. But a large group of people also love plant-powered comfort, and our new Pesto Chick’n Parm sandwich is our current sales leader.

Among our plant-powered comfort items, it’s been about a 50-50 split between plant-based chicken and plant-based beef.

What is one thing that you believe the plant-based industry should prioritize in the coming year to increase consumer adoption?

Regain the narrative by focusing on the amazing benefits of eating plant powered protein.

No matter what your eating style, everybody benefits when they eat more plant protein – whether you’re craving nutrient-packed whole plant-powered protein from beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, and tempeh; or planet-friendly comfort food that has no cholesterol, no hormones, and no antibiotics.