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How I Made It: Veggie Grill’s T.K. Pillan learned to harness the power of plants

LOS ANGELES, CA -- WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2018-- Chairman and founder T.K. Pillan, develops 30 loc
T.K. Pillan is chairman and co-founder of Veggie Grill, a vegan food chain.
(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

T.K. Pillan, 50, is co-founder and chairman of Santa Monica-based Veggie Grill, which opened its first fast-casual vegan restaurant in 2006. The chain, which employs 750 people, has 31 locations and is expanding outside California. Veggie Grill was named one of the “25 Most Innovative Consumer Brands of 2016” by Forbes magazine and “Favorite Vegan Chain” in 2016 and 2017 by VegNews Magazine. Pillan is also a co-founder and partner at Powerplant Ventures, an equity fund that invests in plant-based food and beverage companies.

Business plans

Pillan’s father, Salaiyur, was an engineer working in the U.S. aerospace industry. His first plan was to follow in those footsteps, but, with a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, Pillan decided “ engineering was not really what I was passionate about. I was much more interested in learning how to create a business.”

Training ground

Pillan’s place to learn about running a business was Cambridge Technology Partners, in 1990. It was a company on the cutting edge of helping businesses utilize computer systems, Pillan said. “I enjoyed diving in and figuring out how a computer system could help create efficiency, then designing and implementing that system. It was a great first job out of college for me.”

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UCLA inspiration

Pillan worked for the company for four years, including a transfer to Los Angeles for a stint helping set up a computer system for an aerospace company. Still, it wasn’t satisfying; Pillan attended the UCLA Anderson School of Business, starting in 1994. There he met mentors including James Collins, former chairman of Sizzler International Inc. and chief executive at Collins Foods International Inc.

“They had a great entrepreneurial program, a lot of successful business people, like Jim Collins, who had started their own companies. It gave me the inspiration. They were people who decided they were gonna focus on something specific and put the pieces together and made it happen.”

Boom and bust

Pillan teamed up with UCLA business school student and roommate Joe Tang, also an MIT graduate, on a business that sought to piggyback off of the growing need for online business catalogs, a company called Guidance Solutions. Both threw in $30,000 of their savings to start the company in 1995, the year before Pillan got his MBA. But the heady growth years for technology companies came to an end.

“By the end of 2000, we realized the dotcoms had gone away. The corporates were cutting back,” Pillan said. “So we restructured. We were forced to make hard decisions. We had gone from two people to 200 employees and we were suddenly back down to 40.”

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Epiphany

The roadwork for Veggie Grill stretched over many years. Part was the influence of his mother, Mani, who was a registered dietitian. Another was his strict training regimen in college, where he was captain of the MIT baseball team and a member of other sports teams.

“There was this fundamental need of being able to go out to eat and find delicious, healthy, convenient food,” Pillan said of the niche he thought he could fill. “It just didn’t exist.” The plan was to focus on plant-based food, with no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no cholesterol, no animal fat or trans fat.

Consult the experts

The Veggie Grill plan started with Pillan and partner, investment banker Kevin Boylan, making the rounds of all of the best vegan restaurants in Southern California, including the Native Foods chain. One big clue came when Pillan found himself back at his college athlete weight of 150 pounds after a few months of vegan eating.

But Pillan and Boylan realized their limitations. “We didn’t have to bootstrap this one and start cooking in the kitchen ourselves. We needed a partner. We wound up hiring Ray White from Native Foods as our third partner, to handle the menu.”

Grand openings

The first Veggie Grill opened 12 years ago in Irvine. The second opened 13 months later in El Segundo. “That one was dead quiet for the first four weeks,” Pillan said “We thought we had screwed it up. Right? Nobody was walking by. There’s no foot traffic. Luckily, word of mouth spread. People really did like the food.”

LOS ANGELES, CA -- WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2018-- A quinoa based salad with avocados, carrots and p
A quinoa-based salad with avocados, carrots and almonds is one of the best sellers at Veggie Grill.
(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

Expansion

But Pillan and partners needed some serious cash to move beyond a small, regional chain. In 2013, the company raised $20 million in capital from one of the nation’s oldest private equity firms, Brentwood Associates.

The Right Team

Pillan said the right team was needed for that expansion. Restaurant industry veteran Greg Dollarhyde was brought on as chief executive. Dollarhyde retired in 2016, and the CEO job went to Steve Heeley, who had joined the company as chief operating office after running the Earl of Sandwich chain.

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“It was time to bring on these pros who knew how to take a restaurant from one region to other regions. And so we decided that’s what we were gonna do,” Pillan said.

Personal

In 2015, Pillan co-founded Powerplant Ventures, a venture capital fund that raised $42 million to support what he described as “visionary entrepreneurs who are leveraging the power of plants to create disruptive businesses.”

Pillan has been married to his wife, Daya, since 1999. They have two teenage daughters, Shriya and Avanthi. In his off time, Pillan has found fun on Southern California beaches with a different outlet for his athleticism. “Beach volleyball is my thing now,” Pillan said. “That’s my way of staying active.”


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