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Fast Food in Toluca Lake Turns Vegan

The nation’s largest all-vegan fast casual concept Veggie Grill made its East Valley debut last week, cutting the ribbon at its newest location in Toluca Lake. The chain, which serves nutrition-dense veggie burgers, mock-chicken wings and salads, already has Valley locations in Westfield Topanga at the Village shopping center in Woodland Hills and on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. But the Toluca Lake spot serves a unique market: it’s a short drive from bustling downtown Burbank and lies just a mile from the major Hollywood studios Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment and Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as the CityWalk shopping center. According to Veggie Grill Chief Executive Steve Heeley, this is by design. “It’s a phenomenal trade area,” Heeley said. “You have proximity to downtown Burbank and all the offices, all the production studios in that area, which is very dynamic. And then we have all these great neighborhoods around there to the north, south, and west towards North Hollywood. … We’ve been looking for an East Valley location for a while.” To fill out its 100-percent vegan menu, Veggie Grill partners with food manufacturers that specialize in plant-based proteins and dairy substitutes. For example, customers can nosh on Beyond Burgers made primarily of pea proteins, canola oil and coconut oil, sourced by El Segundo-based Beyond Meat. Another partner is Cena Vegan in L.A., which makes plant-based carne asada, al pastor, carnitas and other vegan pork products. Egg substitutes come from Just Egg in San Francisco. Heeley said 80 percent of Veggie Grill’s national customer base is not vegan or even vegetarian — “they’re just mindful eaters.” The chain’s success at selling vegan food in urban areas where healthy, fast and cheap dining options are rare indicates that the traditionally greasy fast food market may be ready for a shift. “It signals that plant-based has gone mainstream. When the founders (T.K. Pillan and Kevin Boylan) started the company, this idea of having a concept that’s all vegan was pretty novel. What’s happening in the marketplace is people are discovering that you can eat these plant-based foods that taste great and they know intuitively it’s better for them and better for the planet,” Heeley said, noting that traditional chains like Burger King and KFC recently debuted plant-based meat-substitute options. “Veggie Grill is the innovator.” Investors seem to consider the company’s strategy promising. Late last year, Veggie Grill conducted a healthy capital raise of $22 million, enabling the chain to fast-track its expansion. “Our goal is to be a national brand,” Heeley said. Veggie Grill began in 2006 with a single eatery in Irvine. It has since grown to a total of 34 locations in California, Oregon, Washington and Chicago. The chain will soon open two locations in New York City and Boston Harvard Square — the first outposts in New York and Massachusetts, respectively.

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