April 01, 2008

By Paul Feinberg

T.K. Pillan (’96) was sick of pizza.

So, he opened The Veggie Grill.

T. K. PillanIn 2007, The Veggie Grill was named Orange County’s “Best New Restaurant” by the OC Register, collecting a slew of other glowing press clippings along the way. Pillan and his partners have since opened a second Veggie Grill location in El Segundo and are in preparations for TVG - #3, slated for a desirous Orange County shopping complex.

If the carefully-timed roll out proves successful, the plan is to take The Veggie Grill nationwide.

And Pillan doesn’t eat pizza anymore.

Pillan Thirumalaisamy (he later changed his name legally to “T.K. Pillan” and everyone just calls him “Pillan”) fell in love with Los Angeles when a tech company he worked for transferred him to Southern California as part of their corporate expansion. PIllan 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 involved himself at the Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and began searching for different entrepreneurial opportunities.

“At the beginning of my second year, I saw some opportunities with the Internet,” Pillan said. “I really saw [the Internet] as a fundamental change.” So, he co-founded a company that enabled commerce on the web. “Anderson was a great asset to us at that time.” Pillan explained -- pointing out that the assistance he received in writing his business plan was very valuable. “I took advantage of my professors, running different concepts past them.”

The company Pillan and his partners created while the former 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. A year later they had 30 employees and a host of solid clients. By 1998, they were in high demand, as the only company in Los Angeles with their type of core, e-commerce expertise. By the end of 1999, Guidance employed 100 people and by mid-2000, they had a staff of 175.

At the end of 1999, Pillan and his partners raised 40 million dollars to continue building the business, pouring most back in while accepting a portion of the monies raised for a portion of their share of the business. In 2004, Pillan stepped away from the business (and he most recently sold off his remaining stake in the business to the person he brought in to run it. He does still keep an office at Guidance.)

After moving away from his day-to-day activities at Guidance in 2004, Pillan 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 and if they both liked the deal, the thought was 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. The banker asked Pillan what he would really 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. It was a tremendous challenge to find good, wholesome food to eat out or bring home. The banker felt the same way and their mutual feelings got each other 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, cross country tour to sample the best of healthy and vegetarian cooking. They  went looking for two things: Great tasting food and an approach that would be scalable in a “fast-casual” food format.

Ironically, one of the establishments Pillan believed was closest to the concept they were looking for was Native Foods, which has a branch in the Westwood Village, only about a mile from UCLA Anderson. It wasn’t exactly what they were looking for, but it was in the ball park.

“Native Foods did great things with vegetable protein, which was important,” Pillan said. “But their menu was larger than we felt it had to be for what we wanted to do and the atmosphere was a little cliquey.” The vibe was essential to Pillan as he considered the type of restaurant he wanted to establish. Pillan wasn’t looking to make a political statement. He was looking to base a new business on the concept of great tasting, healthy food.

After the tour, he and his partner spent their 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 Native Foods directly and formed a new company along with one of Native Food’s two founders (Ray White),  who shared their vision. Their new partner would focus on the food, while the two businessmen focused on brand building and the look and feel of the new restaurants.

The El Segundo branch of The Veggie Grill is well-lit and brightly colored -- with quasi-neon hues in abundance. You place your order at a counter, where friendly staff are available to answer any questions one might have about the entirely vegetarian menu. The concept in El Segundo is based on the already successful, original Irvine location, which opened as a prototype in November 2006.

When Pillan greets a reporter at the El Segundo branch, it’s only been open for a few weeks, but early indications are that it will match the original. At noon, there’s a line at the counter and business is brisk. The Veggie Grill has become not only a choice for vegetarians in the neighborhood, but another choice for the same people who might eat at California Pizza Kitchen one day and Island’s the next.

Perhaps the best analogy for The Veggie Grill is Whole Foods, the grocery chain focused on healthier food. While both may attract those with stricter dietary desires, both aim to appeal to anyone who’s looking for high-quality, wholesome food.

Currently, the plan is to open a third Veggie Grill later this year, then use the three locations to establish a series of best practices. “We could grow faster, Pillan -- who since the opening of TVG has become a vegetarian himself -- said. “But we’re being disciplined.

“Building out The Veggie Grill is definitely a passion, we believe in it.”

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