Veggie Grill and the plant protein revolution

Veggie Grill recently announced an expansion of the chain. They’ve got an investment based on encouraging performance of their stores. The market is showing an appetite for non-traditional offerings, moving away from burgers and chicken sandwiches. People are looking for new flavors and ingredients.

Looking at restaurants like Veggie Grill and Zoe’s Kitchen, we see success with this formula. Other veggie concepts like Sweet Tomatoes have faltered but relaunched with a revised strategy and are focused on leveraging the trend.

According to the Harris Poll: With U.S. adults 18 and over numbering about 245 million, we can estimate the number of vegetarians (including vegans) in the U.S. adult population, based on this poll, to be approximately eight million adults. About half of vegetarians were also vegan. Approximately 3.7 million U.S. adults are vegan; 4.3 million are vegetarian but not vegan.

3% is still small. But the acceptance of non-meat protein is catching on, if you watch current products. In grocery and CPG, there are hundreds of products (especially in the snack space) that offer higher protein from plant sources. Calbee’s Harvest Snaps offer pea and legume proteins with punch flavors. Kale chips are available in many Starbucks locations. Sabra brand hummus is gaining share against traditional dips and spreads.

Veggie Grill’s ‘Chicken’ line has products with protein counts in the 30+ grams, lower levels of sugar and sodium.

Plant-based products are on the rise, and the number of those more open to vegetable focused foods is too. The above referenced Harris Poll found that 37% of Americans eat a vegetarian or vegan meal once per week. That was an increase of 1% from a similar poll in 2015. These numbers set the stage for increased traction for concepts like Veggie Grill. This is interesting when compared to other growing trends.

<h5>Protein content.</h5> According to a 2016 poll covered in Food Processing, “42 percent of consumers said high protein was “especially important” in choosing foods to eat… [and] 43.2 percent of U.S. consumers said they somewhat or strongly agreed that they sought out vegetarian sources of proteins.”

Consumers have awareness of the nutritional content of everything they eat, and make choices to maximize, minimize or trade-off certain ingredients to suit their diet. Veggie Grill’s “Quinoa + Veg Sandwich” packs 17 grams of protein and 19 grams of fat into 580 calories. This compares to Chic-Fil-A’s classic chicken sandwich with 28 grams of protein, 18 grams of fat and 440 calories. But the Veggie Grill product has 9 more grams of sugar and 160 more mg of sodium.

Veggie Grill’s ‘Chicken’ line has products with protein counts in the 30+ grams, lower levels of sugar and sodium. These produces are made with soybeans, wheat, peas and ancient grains.

<h5>Bold flavors</h5>

Every restaurant┬áhas been looking to add bold flavors to their menu going back to 2014. See: the amount of Sriracha menu items being added across the country. Veggie Grill has done a fantastic job of bringing bold and exciting flavors forward. Along with ‘buffalo’ flavors, they borrow from mexican, thai and indian cuisine.

Many items on their menu are modeled after familiar flavors which may be helping those resistant to vegetarian foods find something to try. This is a smart way to stop vetos from meat eaters.

Veggie Grill has made sure that they’re offering meals with sufficient protein lots of flavor. Vegetable focused brands like Sweet Tomatoes could learn from this playbook if they hope to survive long-term. Of course, the expansion of Veggie Grill likely means traditional restaurants will add vegetarian options and fight for share.