When Steve Heeley was young, “vegetarian” was a dirty word. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the term inferred rustic communes and unsavory smelling hippies as much as it defined a style of eating. A 1971 poll found that a slim one percent of Americans considered themselves vegetarian or vegan.
Decades later, perceptions have changed. Big time. Vegetarianism has gone mainstream, with millions of people around the world embracing the benefits of a plant-based diet. A 2016 survey found that 3.3 percent of Americans were non-meat eaters, with millions more eating meat only sparingly.
As the CEO of the fast casual restaurant chain Veggie Grill, Heeley has helped harness this cultural shift into a successful and beloved business catering to vegans, vegetarians and anyone else interested in legitimately delicious plant-based food. MiLLENNiAL caught up with Heeley to discuss his career and how millennials are driving this veggie revolution.
A Lifetime in Nutrition
Raised in Phoenix, Heeley was a natural athlete, competing in football, wrestling and track and field in high school and attending the University of Arizona on a football scholarship. This lifelong emphasis on fitness gave him a parallel passion for nutrition and diet optimization, as these things offered him an edge on the field.
Even after hanging up his helmet to pursue an MBA at the University of Wisconsin, Heeley’s interest in health and wellness remained. He soaked up knowledge about nutrition, in time discovering the standard meat and potatoes diet he and millions of other baby boomers had been raised on wasn’t actually the optimal way to eat.
“The old days of the food pyramid have kind of been blown away,” Heeley says on the phone from his office at the Veggie Grill headquarters in Santa Monica, CA. “There’s actually a lot of myths about healthy eating, some of them perpetuated by our own government.” He says that while a vegetarian diet might have once been considered extreme or fringe among his generation, ideas have evolved as information about health and wellness has become more widely accessible.
“There were a lot of perceptions that vegetarian food didn’t taste very good and that you had to have meat at the center of the plate for it to be a real meal,” Heeley says. “There were also a lot of misperceptions about nutrition around vegetarian diets — you can’t get a complete protein, you can’t get all of your vitamins and minerals eating a vegetarian diet. All those things have been disproven.”
A Healthy Example
For Heeley, a typical day is spent in meetings, trying new food items, planning and executing company strategy and communicating with leadership, the board, the press, guests, vendors and teams in the field. To prepare for busy days — two of which are rarely alike — Heeley begins by centering his mind and opening it up for the possibilities of the day to come.
“To prepare for the workday, I ask the question: ‘How is my time best spent today to further the strategy of the company and the success of the brand and the team?’” he says. Throughout the day he meditates, stretches and focuses on deep breathing.
Still big into a physical fitness, Heeley does yoga, boxing, strength training, endurance training and cardio. In his free time he skis and snowboards, bikes, scuba dives and embarks on major hikes with his family. (Next up is Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in California at 14,505 feet.) Not surprisingly, Heeley says the most important thing he does to support this active lifestyle is fueling his body with nutritious, plant-based foods.
Tapping into the Market
Heeley shifted to an entirely plant-based diet six years ago, a decision that made him a natural fit at Veggie Grill, where he was named CEO in 2016. He came to the company after stints at national food chains Baja Fresh, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Au Bon Pain and Earl of Sandwich.
Founded in 2006 in the health and wellness nexus of Southern California, Veggie Grill has 28 locations on the west coast from San Diego up to Seattle. Its menu serves foods completely free of meat, dairy, eggs, cholesterol, animal fat and trans fat. Despite these vegetarian bonafides, menu items still maintain the robust flavor and creative flair of foods found in non-veggie, chef-driven restaurants. There are taco salads, brats, fries, mac & cheese and a barrage of burgers including one made with Beyond Meat, considered the market’s closest plant-based beef alternative. According to Veggie Grill co-founder TK Pillan, the company’s customer base is 70 percent non-vegetarian.
“There’s this growing consciousness around the industrial food complex that some of the foods we’ve been eating are probably not very good for us and alternative ways of eating are just as satisfying,” says Heeley. “That’s what we love to do at Veggie Grill, break down those walls and show people they can eat food that tastes great and is also plant-based and healthy.”
The Millennial Influence
Millennials are playing a huge role in rise of plant based eating. According to Heeley this generation of approximately 80 million, along with the millions of young people coming up behind them, have a vastly greater awareness about the benefits of healthy eating than previous generations. Many have been raised eating organic and also have instant access to information about food through their phones. Thus, as the spending power of this market sector increases, so too does the demand for the kind of food served at Veggie Grill.
“Food manufacturers have figured out there’s this huge market that’s growing exponentially,” Heeley says, “so now you have big companies jumping on the bandwagon producing foods that are inherently better for you, whether they’re plant-based, free of additives or free of preservatives and other things that have been proven to be unhealthy.”
Even mainstream concepts like TGI Fridays have embraced this market shift by adding plant-based burgers to menus at their hundreds of nationwide locations, helping establish plant-based eating as a new normal rather than a passing fad. “It’s beyond a trend,” Heeley says. “It’s really a change in how people eat, via this transformation of primarily meat and dairy based diets to diets that are primarily plants and natural foods.”
This transformation is not only important for the health of our bodies, but for the well being of the planet. Myriad scientific studies have linked the consumption of meat with deforestation, water pollution and other types of environmental degradation. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, meats like beef and lamb are responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains.
“There aren’t enough natural resources to sustain the way a lot of people eat now, especially things like beef, pork and chicken,” says Heeley. “It’s no secret the reason the Amazon rainforest is being cut down for cattle grazing land, which requires huge amounts of water and creates huge amounts of pollution. To be able to feed the world, the only sustainable option is more people to be plant based.”
While Veggie Grill doesn’t push an agenda beyond mouthwatering food, the company is undeniably contributing to more sustainable food systems while proving that reducing the amount of meat in one’s diet doesn’t have to be a chore.
“We try not to preach,” Heeley says, “but we know that at the end of the day we’re helping people eat better and hopefully contributing to a better planet.”
While Veggie Grill has thrived on the historically health conscious west coast, growing interest in plant-based food means a lot of underserved markets — and thus tremendous growth potential. In February 2018, the first Veggie Grill east of the Rockies opened in Chicago with a menu featuring an exclusive meatball sub. (Local vegetarian and vegan groups were invited in for special tastings.) New locations are set for New York and Boston in the next year.
“We have location requests from all over the United States, all over the world,” Heeley says. “I wish we could open a veggie grill in every city today, but that takes capital, people and time.
But the man at the helm of a company riding high on the food revolution has a promise he will surely make good on: “We’re going to grow as fast as we can.”