Co-Owner: The Veggie Grill
Plaza El Segundo
720 Allied Way, El Segundo, CA 90245
Three additional locations in Los Angeles and Irvine
Yelp: 4.5 stars
Interview Date: Tuesday, June 15, 2010
“I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life,” says Ray White, co-owner of The Veggie Grill. Originally from Boston, Ray’s father and uncle owned restaurants, and the family was regularly holding clam bakes and otherwise gathering around food. In 1969 Ray had graduated from College when he and a friend drove from Florida to California with no clear goal in mind. “We didn’t know where we were going, but we just kept driving and then all of a sudden we were in Santa Monica, at the beach, and we said ‘we’re here!’” says Ray.
Ray remembers walking up and down the streets of Santa Monica, looking for a job. He finally landed at a pizzeria located on Third Street (before it was the Promenade) – a restaurant owned by Mickey Rooney. “They asked me if I could throw pizzas in the window – I said ‘of course!’” says Ray. When they realized that Ray actually didn’t know how to throw pizzas, they kept him on anyway. “I was throwing pizzas and washing the floors and one day I suddenly had an epiphany,” says Ray. “I thought: why don’t I just open my own restaurant?”
So, at 26 years old, Ray opened his first restaurant. Located in Pacific Palisades, he named it “The First National Food Company.” His second restaurant was called the Cliff House located in Playa Del Rey, and he continued to explore new concepts and opportunities through the 1980s.
In about 1990, Ray was told about a restaurant called The Empty Plate – a vegetarian restaurant on the second floor of a building (not an ideal location, he says). “I went once and I liked it,” says Ray. “Then I found myself wanting to go back, again and again. I took two bites of the Moby Dick Sandwich, which was made with tempeh, and all the bells and whistles went off in my head.” Ray felt confident that vegetarian food and meat-alternatives like tempeh offered a whole new product opportunity. “With every restaurant, you’re looking at the same basic product: meat, fish and chicken,” says Ray. “Now here was a whole new product and I thought ‘what if I take this to mainstream America?’”
The owner of the restaurant, Tanya Petrovna, and Ray ended up going into business together and opened Native Foods together in 1994. “She taught me everything about this product,” says Ray. “She was really way ahead of her time.” During his time working with Tanya, Ray discovered a whole new way of life. “What began as a business opportunity turned into a passion – a spiritual thing for me,” says Ray. “I became dedicated to showing people the benefits of a plant-based diet.”
While Tanya and Ray were running and expanding Native Foods, Ray’s current partners, Kevin Boylan and T.K. Pillan, were young, successful and semi-retired and became interested in the plant-based food movement. “They both saw an opportunity for a healthy place to eat, and had a passion to do something,” says Ray. When they first approached Ray, the entrepreneurs were not yet vegans, but when they re-approached him and said they had been vegans for six months, he began to seriously consider their offer. The first Veggie Grill was opened in Irvine in 2005, and the company now has four outlets, with two more scheduled for this year, six in 2011, and a business plan to open hundreds of outlets nationwide.
In fact, Ray would like to see enough of a movement for meat alternatives that the prices go down and the restaurant chain can eventually open a drive-through. “Fast food isn’t going away,” says Ray. “But we can influence the way it is prepared and delivered – and eventually what it does to your body. You are what you feed yourself.”
There is no question where Ray’s passions lie – he truly believes in the food-body-mind connection and presents his ideas clearly and without preaching. “With our product, we have the ability to change people’s consciousness and their whole relationship with food,” says Ray. “I’m not saying that everyone has to become a vegetarian or vegan, but it can become a regular part of your mix of food.”