I like Veggie Grill. I eat there a lot. But a few months back they introduced a new menu. It’s called the “mindful living menu.” And immediately I became mindful of a claim at the top of the menu: “A menu curated to highlight items that are lower in calories, high in protein and nutrient-dense. All of our veggie proteins and tempeh are organic and non-GMO.” What? Your “veggie proteins” are organic? Ummmm…
But that’s not all. On their regular non-mindful menu, it says “so what’s in Chickin'” and then says, “Our specially seasoned and marinated proteins, Chickin’ and Veggie-Steak, are made from organic and non-GMO soybeans, wheat and peas. Produced by GARDEIN™, these hearty proteins are deliciously satisfying, easily digested and packed with nutrients and fiber.”
There’s only one problem with these claims. gardein is not organic.
On gardein’s website it says: “Wherever possible, we use the best organic and certified non-gmo ingredients, with the majority coming from north american farms.” But gardein is not certified organic, it doesn’t even have the lesser 7o percent organic certification that reads: “Made with organic…” When you ask gardein customer service, they say: “No, it’s not organic but is made with some organic ingredients.” When you look on their most recent packaging you will see that it says that they use “organic cane sugar” and “organic ancient grain flour” but that’s all I could find marked organic after looking at the packaging for several different items. And nowhere does it say that the main protein ingredients, the “soybeans, wheat and peas” mentioned on Veggie Grill’s current menu, are organic.
So when the mindful menu first came out on January 20, 2014 I responded immediately with some doubtful tweets:
I got no response. Which was strange. Veggie Grill’s tweets, according to their twitter account itself, are “Tweeted By Co-Founder Kevin Boylan” and I have always found Kevin to be prompt, friendly, responsive and overall one of the more impressive corporate honchos out there on the Internet. But this time the silence was deafening.
Then five days later I saw a tweet from the Cornucopia Institute about soy. According to one of the Cornucopia Institute’s “scorecards,” gardein is not organic. So I tweeted at Cornucopia to see what they thought about Veggie Grill’s claims. Not long after, I received the following tweet from Kevin:
Okay, finally, a response. But then I heard nothing. After ten days of “staying tuned” I complained on twitter about their lack of a response, which prompted the following tweet from them:
I was shocked by this answer. Organic? REALLY? That seemed so implausible. I’d never seen gardein say that about their soy, wheat and peas. Ever. So was gardein giving Kevin bad information? Had Kevin really gotten this information from gardein? Now the mystery grew.
But there was one way I knew I could get an answer. gardein always has a huge booth at the Natural Products Expo West. And I had a feeling that this year would be no exception. I would ask one of the high-end gardein execs who regularly are in attendance there.
So you can imagine my surprise and delight when the first person I noticed at the gardein booth was not some stereotypical moronic marketing geek who probably doesn’t even eat gardein themselves and gorges on meat all day and holds vegans in contempt, but rather Yves Potvin, the founder and owner of gardein himself! Score! So I struck up a conversation with Yves, who could not have been more friendly. In fact, he seemed like a really great guy. And I asked him flat out if gardein is organic. And he said no it’s not organic, but it contains some organic ingredients. And then I asked him if there were different products that are organic for food service and restaurants. And he very clearly shook his head and said no, it’s all the same gardein.
Wow. Just wow.
If only Veggie Grill had answered my question about their “mindful living menu” in a straightforward and honest way, I never would have been driven to this point. But this new revelation was a million times bigger than the mindful living menu problem. Because on its regular menu, for years, gardein has claimed as you can see above that its gardein is made from organic soybeans, wheat and peas.
And let me tell you, my fans are just terrific. I have received older Veggie Grill menus from people, which has enabled me to construct a timeline. Here’s a menu from early 2010, before the Santa Monica location of Veggie Grill even opened, stating that their tempeh (which is not made by gardein) is from organic soybeans but saying nothing about any organic components for their gardein “Chillin’ Chickin’ & Veggie-Steak.”
And then I have a menu from two years ago, March 2012, where the organic claim has begun to sneak in:
In this March, 2012 menu, Veggie Grill claims that their “Chillin’ Chickin’ & Veggie-Steak” are “made with soy and wheat that are organic and non-GMO.” Keep in mind, like I mentioned above, the soy and wheat on the retail gardein packs are not identified as organic, just the cane sugar and ancient wheat flour. And Yves said it’s all the same gardein. Yet FOR TWO YEARS Veggie Grill has been telling their customers that the soy and wheat in its gardein are organic. And for at least a year it’s been claiming that the peas are organic, too.
I started to think, is this really possible? Could I be wrong? Despite what the owner and founder of gardein himself told me? Despite what gardein customer service told me? Despite what every retail gardein package I could find was telling me?
And then I found it. Hidden in plain sight. Right on Veggie Grill’s very own website. TODAY. Take a look:
There it is. An entire webpage of ingredients. And the only organic ingredients I see mentioned in any of this are “organic beet root fiber” and “organic evaporated cane juice.” The wheat, the soy, the peas… nothing marked organic. (The Too Good Tempeh has organically grown soybeans and organic apple cider vinegar but I have never disputed that the tempeh is organic, and the tempeh is not from gardein. I included it here only because I wanted to reproduce the web page for you in its entirety.)
And again, this page is still on their website RIGHT NOW. (Of course, as soon as they see this they will take it down, but don’t worry, I took plenty of screen shots.)
So for at least two years Veggie Grill has been telling its customers on its menus that the wheat and soy in its gardein are organic, and all this time on its very own website it was revealing the true ingredients: that the soy and wheat and peas in its gardein are not organic.
How did this happen? And what is Veggie Grill going to do about it to make good to its customers? There are currently 23 stores in the Veggie Grill chain. And take a look at their menu, gardein is involved in the bulk of their sales. This constitutes nothing short of a crisis for Veggie Grill. All because they were not forthcoming with me when I asked a simple question about their mindful living menu.
At minimum — AT MINIMUM — Veggie Grill needs to give refunds and credits to all its customers who bought these so-called organic products. We are talking millions if not tens of millions of dollars in givebacks. And unlike many companies that might struggle to find a way to figure out who bought what, Veggie Grill has had a rewards system in place for the last three months that requires customers to send a photo of their receipt to Veggie Grill for reward points. So AT MINIMUM this is a start for Veggie Grill, since they have an easy way to know exactly who bought gardein-based items during the existence of the rewards program and give those people credit for those meals.
But the problem goes much deeper. I am not contacting lawyers about this, even though you can imagine how the eyes of a class-action lawyer would light up at the possibility of a lawsuit here. And I have not contacted any state or federal authorities. But it’s time for Veggie Grill to publicly apologize to me, to admit that a hideous breach of trust with their customers has occurred, and to make right with them. Their continued silence on the matter is only making things worse.
Like I said, I like Veggie Grill. I eat there a lot. I hope they thrive and continue to grow and achieve their plans of blanketing the country and eventually the world with Veggie Grills. But this was bad. Real bad.