Chicagoans are finally getting healthier fast-casual restaurants with lots of vegetarian options.
The move, industry players say, is the result of years of gradually rising consumer expectations, combined with an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of eating meat and a few high-profile athlete endorsements for good measure. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, for example, just came out with a nutrition book that partially attributes his longevity as an NFL quarterback to a diet filled with 80 percent veggies.
“Brady’s the most high-profile, but now (Green Bay Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers is saying he’s gone mostly vegan, and a lot of NBA players are switching over to plant-based diets, too,” says Steve Heeley, CEO of Veggie Grill. “Most people intuitively know that we probably shouldn’t be eating a lot of red meat.”
By the end of this year, Heeley’s vegan fast-casual chain will debut several restaurants in Chicago, including locations in Lincoln Park and the Loop.
Though the menu from the Irvine, Calif.-based company contains no meat, “80 percent of our guests are not vegan or vegetarians,” says Heeley. “They’re just people who have made conscious decisions to incorporate more veggies, grains and nuts in their diet.”
Indeed, even though only about 10 percent of Americans identify as vegetarians, far more are interested in these kind of diets, says Claire Conaghan, a senior account manager at Datassential, a Chicago-based food market research firm. Forty percent of people have tried something that’s targeted to vegans, she says, “which explains why these concepts are growing so rapidly.” Today, a quarter of fast-casual menu items cater to vegetarians, up 80 percent from four years ago, while 10 percent are vegan-friendly—a 115 percent increase from 2013.
“We see a lot of what we call ‘healthy 3.0’ offerings with, for example, legumes instead of animal protein or faux meat replacements,” Conaghan says. “You’ll see a ‘rustic farm bowl’ on the Veggie Grill menu that happens to be vegan but also caters to people who just like vegetables, and is going to appeal to a lot more people than faux chicken wings.”
As demand increases, competition is ramping up, too. Veggie Grill and other Chicago newcomers, including Honeygrow, a Philadelphia-based noodle stir-fry and salad spot that has opened one location in the West Loop and is planning a second downtown outlet, must compete not just with each other, but against the more-tenured fast-casual chains that introduced the “better for you” concept to Chicago in the late aughts. Those players include Freshii, which now has 32 locations in the city and suburbs; Protein Bar, which has grown to 14 outlets in the area; and Native Foods, a vegan comfort-food chain with three restaurants in the Loop, Wicker Park and Hyde Park.
‘BLEEDING’ BEET JUICE
Veggie Grill, which has opened 28 restaurants in California, Oregon and Washington since 2007, has both fake meat (it serves the Beyond Burger, which “bleeds” beet juice) and offerings like zucchini soup. It recently received $22 million in funding, led by Brentwood Associates of Santa Monica, Calif., that will allow Heeley to expand to Chicago and Boston; he says he plans to double the number of Veggie Grills in the next few years.
Other healthier purveyors are expanding. Sweetgreen, a Los Angeles-based “farm-to-counter” salad and warm-bowl concept that has raised more than $40 million in funding from investors including AOL founder Steve Case, opened its third Chicago outpost, in the West Loop, Sept. 25. A fourth location in the Loop will open later this year. Meanwhile, Lettuce Entertain You’s popular Beatrix restaurant, which serves meat alongside many veggie-centric options, just opened a fourth, quick-service Beatrix Market in the Loop that serves a rotating menu of chef-assembled salads.
When Sweetgreen—founded in 2007 by three recent Georgetown University grads—debuted in River North at the end of 2016, a line wrapped around the block for weeks as people clamored to grab salads and grain bowls packed with organic spinach and kale, locally sourced veggies and quinoa.
Heeley hopes Veggie Grill’s Midwestern reception will be similarly warm. “What we’re seeing in Chicago is an explosion in this better-for-you fast-casual market driven by sophisticated urban consumers and millennials,” he says. He and his investors worked with Chicago design firm Gensler to create modern, bright restaurants he hopes will lure Generation Z members and baby boomers alike. After opening five to seven city locations, Heeley says the team will evaluate an expansion to the suburbs.
Vegan offerings are the fastest-growing healthy items at top fast-casual chains, according to data from food consultancy Technomic. “Restaurants that used to call out antibiotic-free meat are leaning more towards introducing vegetarian options,” says Darren Tristano, a Technomic adviser.
Though investors are bullish on veggies when targeted to an upscale urban audience, fast-food chains don’t see enough demand. McDonald’s sells vegan burgers in Norway, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and other countries, but it has never cracked the code stateside. When it tried, “we end up serving four a day,” former CEO Don Thompson told investors in 2011. Wendy’s, meanwhile, tested a black-bean burger in 2016 but has no current plans to permanently reintroduce it.
The exception: White Castle’s veggie slider, introduced in 2015, has proven so popular that the chain recently introduced a vegan black bean burger.
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