T. K. Pillan, Founder of the Veggie Grill

January 28, 2010

By Paul Feinberg

Serial entrepreneur T.K. Pillan ('96) was sick of pizza. So, he opened The Veggie Grill.

And since opening and expanding, the eatery has collected glowing reviews, including being named Orange County's "Best New Restaurant" by the Orange County Register in 2007, the 2008 Restaurant of the Year (nationwide) by VegNews magazine and one of L.A.'s Best New Restaurants in 2009 by CitySearch.   

Now with four successful Southern California locations (two in Orange County, one in El Segundo and one in West Hollywood), Pillan and his partners are scouting for a Santa Monica location, as well as a sixth location (site to be determined). They hope to open both by the end of the year. The carefully-timed rollout is part of a plan to take The Veggie Grill nationwide.

And Pillan doesn't eat pizza anymore.

Pillan Thirumalaisamy fell in love with Los Angeles when a tech company he worked for transferred him to Southern California as part of their corporate expansion. (He later legally changed his name to T.K. Pillan, and everyone just calls him Pillan.) He chose to attend UCLA Anderson, because he wanted to further his career by increasing his understanding of the business side of things and to nurture his own entrepreneurial inclinations. His time as a student was in many ways exploratory. He became involved with the Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and began searching for different entrepreneurial ideas.

"At the beginning of my second year, I saw some opportunities with the Internet," Pillan said. "I really viewed the Internet as a fundamental change. So, I co-founded a company that enables commerce on the web. Being at Anderson was a great asset at that time. I was able to get very valuable help in writing the business plan, taking advantage of the chance to run different concepts past my professors."

The company Pillan and his partners created while he was still at Anderson became Guidance Solutions. Timing might not be everything, but it doesn't hurt either, and 1996 was the perfect time to catch one of the first waves of what became the Internet tsunami. By the end of 1999, Guidance employed 100 people, and Pillan and his partners sold a share of the business to a large private-equity firm. In 2004, Pillan stepped away from his day-to-day activities at Guidance, traveled and didn't begin to consider his next move until the end of that year.

In early 2005, an investment banker, Kevin Boylan, invited him to attend a meeting. Boylan wanted Pillan's take on a tech company he was considering investing in. If they both liked the deal, the thought was that Pillan would also invest and then run the company.

They didn't like the deal.

But afterwards, they sat down at a popular Seattle-based coffee emporium and brainstormed. Boylan asked Pillan what he would do, if he could do anything he wanted. Pillan told the banker that he was tired of picking up a pizza on his way home from work. He found it was a tremendous challenge to find delicious, wholesome food to eat out or bring home. The banker felt the same way, and their mutual feelings got each other more excited about the idea.

So, calling on the skills he learned at Anderson, Pillan wrote a mini-business plan. He and Boylan studied market trends and looked at all the consumer research they could find regarding healthy food and restaurant trends. They then embarked on a coast-to-coast tour to sample the best of "healthy" cooking. They went looking for two things: great tasting food and an approach that would be scalable in a quick-service or "fast-casual" food format.

After the tour, he and his partner spent some time coming up with the exact concept, considering everything from branding and marketing to packaging and the creation of a simple, workable menu that would allow for the control of food costs. Ultimately, they approached Ray White, owner of a local restaurant whose food Pillan and his partner thought was exceptional. He truly embraced their vision and business plan and joined their team. White would focus on the food, while the two businessmen focused on brand building, as well as the look and feel of the new restaurants.

The Veggie Grill restaurants are well-lit and brightly colored - with quasi-neon hues in abundance. Orders are placed at a counter, where friendly staff members are available to answer any questions one might have about the menu of classic American sandwiches and burgers that are done up using vegetarian ingredients. The concept has proved successful. At lunchtime, there is always a line at the counter, and business is brisk. The Veggie Grill has become a destination for anybody looking for delicious food they can feel good about eating. Similar to how Whole Foods has changed the grocery store experience, The Veggie Grill is changing the quick-service restaurant experience.

Pillan continues to learn about the restaurant business all the time. For example, each of The Veggie Grill locations is a little bit different and the data they've gathered guides what types of locations they'll look for in the future. The possible new Santa Monica location is on Wilshire Boulevard (in what ironically used to be a popular steakhouse) as opposed to the city's popular Third Street Promenade. Pillan explained that "neighborhood centers" with ample parking (like the El Segundo and Sunset locations) serve their clientele better than a promenade-like location.

"I definitely see us in the next three years taking the big step outside Southern California," Pillan said. "We'll have six restaurants at the end of this year and hopefully twelve by the end of 2011. The next big step after that will be other regions of the country. Our goal is to be a national brand in three or four years."

Contemplating the company's future also means Pillan must consider whether, as an  entrepreneur, he might be motivated to move on to new creations. At the moment, he's not looking for anything else, but acknowledges that he might be in half a decade.

"I love what we do and I don't see myself stepping away any time soon," Pillan said. "In five years, if we're a national brand and someone comes in who has experience running a national brand, that might be the right time (to consider moving on), but not now."

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