The gig: Greg Dollarhyde, 61, runs Veggie Grill, where the CEO title, he says, stands for "chief energizing officer." The Santa Monica fast-casual restaurant chain, which serves all plant-based food, was launched in 2006. The number of units doubled this year to 26 stores, and revenue is growing more than 50% a year. In more than four decades in the restaurant industry, Dollarhyde has served as the executive chairman or chief executive of eight businesses, including Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and Zoes Kitchen, and the chief financial officer for two public companies.
All but the picket fence: Dollarhyde's childhood in the San Fernando Valley was "just like 'American Graffiti,' " the 1973 baby boomer coming-of-age film by director George Lucas. There were baseball games in the street, skateboards, go-carts, a dog, a younger sister. Dollarhyde would cruise in his Ford Falcon Sprint down Van Nuys Boulevard to Bob's Big Boy or a drive-in movie. He started working at age 14, selling flowers on corners, doing kitchen prep in a restaurant, even enduring a short stint as a gas station attendant. "By 17, I was ready to be on my own," he said.
Start-up upsets: Dollarhyde moved to Newport Beach to help two friends launch a steakhouse. For a month, he worked at the eatery during the day and slept on the booths inside at night. Within a year and a half, one of Dollarhyde's partners had embezzled the restaurant's money and disappeared with his girlfriend. "It's funny now, but it wasn't funny then," Dollarhyde said. With his remaining partner, he went to Lake Tahoe to open a restaurant called Harvest Moon. Three years later, a gas crisis hit, tourist traffic dwindled and a chain restaurant nearby began heavily discounting. "It was game over," Dollarhyde said. Flat broke, he fled to San Francisco to wait tables. "I swore I would never do start-ups again," he said. "I learned my lesson at age 23."
Money on the mind: At age 19, Dollarhyde was sitting in a lecture at Orange Coast College about how Social Security would run dry, leaving his generation struggling to retire. He decided that he didn't want to end up financially in the cold. "I just worked hard ever since," he said. "I've lived my life that way for the past 30 years, and it's worked. It's paid great dividends for me."
Class connections: In 1980, Dollarhyde graduated fourth in his class at Cornell University's hotel school and then earned his MBA from the business school a year later. Later, while chief financial officer at TGI Fridays, he hired former classmate Stephen King, who is now the chief executive of Dave & Buster's.
A happy business: Dollarhyde said he loves the restaurant industry because its members are "generally optimistic people." That's even though it can be "a very brutal business, especially when you're off trend or there's a better mousetrap opening next door." Dollarhyde said he gets satisfaction from watching people enjoying themselves in an eatery that six months before was an empty lot. "When you hit a home run, that's fun," he said.
Game play: But it's not all food for Dollarhyde. Convinced that American youth were moving from video game consoles to online play, he became one of the first angel investors in game publisher Riot Games Inc. He was also the Santa Monica company's chairman for two years, he said. Since then, Riot's "League of Legends" game has become the most-played video game globally, with 32 million players a month. Dollarhyde said he's earned double-digit multiples of returns on his investment. "Invest in things you see people using and doing," he said.
A voluntary vegan: Every morning, Dollarhyde downs "a nutritious bomb of a breakfast drink" with fresh kale and Swiss chard from his garden along with blueberries, raspberries and other fruit. He eats at Veggie Grill daily. Since taking over the CEO job in 2011, he's shunned meat and dairy products. But his diet had lightened steadily over the last two decades, after a doctor showed him an image of his heart speckled with damaging plaque. Now, he says his energy level is as high as it's ever been. "I'm not trying to preach," he said. "There's just so much research that's come along that suggests you are what you eat."
Balancing work: Dollarhyde said he works as many as 12 hours a day, 5 1/2 days a week. He exercises — yoga, Pilates, hiking, biking and more — on Saturday and sometimes visits his mother in an assisted-living facility. On Sunday, he hangs out with his entrepreneur girlfriend, with whom he lives in Malibu. In the past, he used to surf, but now "it's just too crowded for a rookie like me," he said. He snowboards, as do his two sons, who are 20 and 23. He also has a daughter, who is 26 and a vegan. Dollarhyde quit heli-boarding in remote terrain years ago, after a close friend was killed in an avalanche.
Advice to entrepreneurs: Have a positive attitude, don't act entitled and know your stuff, Dollarhyde said. "Show up ready to play," he said. And with the advent of crowd-funding, "there's so much money around waiting to back people with the right idea," he said. He also touts author Malcolm Gladwell's theory that 10,000 hours of practice breeds expertise. "It seems insurmountable," Dollarhyde said. "But it's not."
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