Veggie Grill, one of the country’s fastest-growing plant-based chains, opened its first Chicago unit this week with a new prototype design for high-density, urban locations. The restaurant, one of several slated for the Chicago market, features a significantly smaller footprint, as well as a more efficient kitchen design, proprietary technology and upgraded equipment to speed throughput.
The Chicago Veggie Grill stands at about 2,000 square feet, nearly a third smaller than the West Coast chain’s suburban units, which average about 2,900 square feet.
The original locations had kitchens set up more like full-service restaurants, says Veggie Grill CEO Steve Heeley, with stations for different menu parts and an expediter for the final garnishes. For the new design, Veggie Grill worked with industrial engineers to create a makeline that flows in one direction, with one dish being passed down the line until it is complete.
For even more efficiency, the chain is testing a new technology in Chicago that uses computer modeling to anticipate orders, allowing cooks to begin preparing dishes while a consumer is still paying, Heeley says. “By the time you get down to pay, your order is ready and complete or close to ready and complete,” he says. Orders appear on video screens along the makeline, speeding throughput.
That speed is, in part, due to upgraded kitchen equipment. An automated clamshell grill, for example, allows the chain to cook its meatless burgers topped with vegan cheese in just over a minute, compared to the three minutes it takes using older grills, Heeley says. The kitchen is also outfitted with better holding units, which allow the restaurant to keep items at temperature on the line for longer periods of time, he says.
Another part of the revamp takes the booming off-premise business into account. Up to 60% of Veggie Grill’s orders are ordered for takeout, either from third-party delivery services or for consumer pickup, says Heeley. So the chain created a separate off-premise pickup area for the new unit. Each order gets a receipt sticker with the customer’s name on it before being placed on a shelf for pickup.
“That allows us to separate out that whole flow of customers from the line,” he says.
To compensate for the increased off-premise business, the Chicago unit features fewer in-store seats than the West Coast units, as well as a space-saving communal table.
For those who do dine in or wait for their meals to be prepared, the new kitchen layout features a fully open design that lets consumers see the fresh produce used in many of the dishes, he says.
Veggie Grill, which currently operates 28 domestic units and plans to open eight to 10 more this year, focuses on “veggie-positive” consumers, Heeley says. These might not be hardcore vegetarian or vegan diners, but rather omnivores who are receptive to incorporating plant-based dishes into their diets.
The chain focuses on creating enticing items that happen to be plant-based, such as burgers, tacos and bowls, rather than focusing on better-for-you menus. “The core is we are a great food concept,” Heeley says. “It’s craveable flavors from around the globe. It tastes like it’s supposed to taste.”