Healthy, fast-casual food chains expand with help of celebrity chefs, demand for more veggies

They want it fresh. They want it cheap. They want it fast. And most importantly, they don't want it to taste like it's good for them.

That's a tall order for the new crop of healthy fast-casual restaurant chains, a segment that has struggled in the past but now is flourishing thanks to celebrity chef backings and the popular farm-to-table trend.

"Make it better for me, but I don't want to give anything up. I want less salt, no antibiotics, no trans-fats, more fruits, more veggies. I don't go out to restaurants to give stuff up; I go to restaurants to be tantalized," Greg Dollarhyde, CEO of Santa Monica-based chain Veggie Grill, said by way of summarizing the typical consumer.

More Americans are choosing foods based on the benefits — antioxidants, polyphenols, omega-3s — rather than based on what's being left out — fat, sodium and carbohydrates, according to industry analysts. It's a switch from an avoidance diet to an add-in diet. And these new chains are capitalizing on that change, giving vegetables and good-for-you grains top billing at the center of the plate.

But they're careful not to label themselves as vegan or vegetarian, which could alienate customers. Instead, Veggie Grill — which has 28 restaurants on the West Coast — says its biggest growth has been among the typical meat-eating consumer, and maybe the occasional flexitarian (semi-vegetarians) looking to eat more whole, unprocessed vegetables and grains.

Which is why the restaurants prefer buzzy terms like veggie-centric.

It's a marketing message that resonates as the number of people who say they're trying to get more protein in their diet overall has been declining, says food industry analyst Harry Balzer, of the Chicago-based consumer research firm NPD Group. "We're not trying to get more protein. We're trying to get different sources of protein ... Generally, they're cheaper plant-based sources," he said.

Sales at healthy fast casual chains totaled about $384 million in 2014, up almost 30 percent from 2013, according to preliminary data from Technomic. And locally sourced meats and produce and minimally processed natural ingredients were among the top five menu trends for 2015, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association.

And plenty of restaurant chains are jumping into the pool. Sweetgreen's popular build-a-bowl concept has spawned more than two dozen locations in six states, with two California restaurants opening soon. And this month, Cava Grill announced a $16 million cash infusion to expand its Mediterranean-style big bowl fare on the West Coast. They currently have eight locations around Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Lyfe Kitchen — a chain operated by Art smith, Oprah Winfrey's former personal chef — has opened more than a dozen restaurants in California, New York and Illinois since first opening in Palo Alto in 2011. And chef Jose Andres recently opened veg-centric Beefsteak on the George Washington University Campus in Washington, D.C., and already is planning a second location.

All four offer meats that include "unfried" chicken, salmon and lamb meatballs, but their focus is on veggies, tofu, beans, nuts and Greek yogurt-based sauces.

"You have to make it approachable. You have to make it familiar. When people get too dogmatic or strict about it, that's when you turn people off," says chef Tal Ronnen, who prepared the meals for Winfrey's 21-day cleanse and now runs the upscale Los Angeles vegan restaurant Crossroads.

That's why these chains offer a lot more than salads. There's sweet potato fries and crispy cauliflower — and yes, they're fried, not baked at Veggie Grill. Everything at Lyfe Kitchen, where Ronnen also is a consulting chef, clocks in at under 600 calories, including the stuffed "pizzadillawich" with cheese, veggies and a tomato dipping sauce.

"We don't have many choices for good food fast. A lot of fast food, maybe. But not good food fast created by a chef, not a corporation," said Andres.

The chains might be prospering, but is the Meatless Monday crowd strong enough to give these healthy chains staying power on a national scale?

"It will be harder for them to become McDonald's. I don't think it will be harder for them to survive ... They may have a hard time becoming a national force," said Balzer. "The country is a meat eating country. We want things that we like in new versions of it."

But the healthy fast casual chains have some bigger obstacles than their deep-fried counterparts. Fresh unprocessed foods and organic ingredients are expensive and harder to source. At Lyfe Kitchen, all the meats are hormone-free, as well as local and organic when possible. But good produce can be hard to find in some areas of the country, particularly off-season.

Healthier fare also requires serious prep time to peel and chop all that fresh produce. Veggie Grill goes through 42,000 pounds of vegetables a week at its chains. It would be easier to use frozen butternut squash in their soup at Veggie Grill, but Dollarhyde says consumers know the difference.

"Our goal is to get it out in six minutes. This food doesn't sit well until the heat lamp," said Dollarhyde.

And unlike most fast food restaurants, the chicken, steak, tofu and salmon are cooked to order at The Little Beet in New York, said chef Franklin Becker, who visits his suppliers' farms personally to vet them.

"That's what people want to eat. They want honest foods now."