David and I regularly get together with our friends, Ashley and Adam. Ashley is mostly vegetarian. Adam is not. They were talking recently about a new restaurant in town, where they were checking out the menu. The menu was foodie-central with a who’s who of animal parts. After perusing the menu in the restaurant’s window and noting there wasn’t a single plant-based item on offer, they made room for the person behind them who was also scoping out the place.
Ashley said to Adam, “Well, I guess we’ll go to the restaurant down the road where they have vegetarian options.” The other guest chimed in, “Yep, that’s where I’m going too. I’m also vegetarian.” With that, the three of them headed on their way.
The new restaurant lost 3 diners that day – 2 vegetarians and 1 non-vegetarian – even though they may have been able to make a plant-based dish. However, since the restaurant didn’t list a single option on their menu, the group continued on. Could Ashley and Adam have called the restaurant or asked to speak to the chef? Sure. Could they have cobbled together a vegetarian option out of the ingredients on hand? Perhaps. But sometimes a person wants to take the course of least resistance and go where ordering is easy. A restaurant’s menu is like the title of a book or article. It may be the only thing a person reads.
While restaurants are obviously not obligated to appeal to every demographic, preference, and dietary choice, Ashley and Adam’s story made me think about why it’s in a restaurant’s interests to label the dishes that are veganizable and put at least one interesting vegan option on the menu.
Vegans have a trickle up effect.
Whether it’s a married couple, friends gathering for dinner, or a large family get together, in all relationships people try to find common ground at mealtimes. David isn’t a fan of gravy, barbecue, or sauerkraut. I love all of those foods, but when I’m making dinner for the two of us, I keep those off the menu or add them to my own individual plate after we dish up. Similarly, when we’re getting together with non-vegan friends at a restaurant, I don’t recommend a steakhouse, where David and I are unlikely to find anything interesting. Instead, I’ll suggest the local pizza place, a couple of Indian restaurants, the Mediterranean place… That way I know we’ll all be satisfied.
Can I find a vegan option almost anywhere? Sure. But if I’m going out to a relaxing dinner with friends, I prefer my choice to be pleasurable instead of perfunctory. Not every meal has to be the be-all and end-all of meals (and sometimes you end up at Chili’s on your nephew’s birthday). But all things totaled, it’s more fun to dine somewhere that everyone can be happy instead of eating where some people have full, sustaining meals and others have an awkward discussion followed by a dinner of steamed broccoli.
What’s a restaurateur to do?
If a restaurant knows that it can offer vegan meals, it makes sense to add them to the menu. Seeing “vegan” on the menu makes vegetarians and vegans feel like the restaurant wants our business. It also simplifies ordering.
“I’ll have the roasted red pepper and hummus sandwich, please” is a lot easier to say than, “I noticed you have hummus, roasted red peppers, romaine lettuce, and bread. Could you put them all together for me?”
Labeling vegan options helps the messenger (i.e. server).
On busy nights, it’s a lot easier to order the clearly labeled vegan option. That way the server doesn’t have to relay a bunch of substitutions when time is an imperative. By having “vegan” on the menu, it makes an obvious go-to.
Labeling vegan options solidifies the weakest link.
When I dine at a restaurant, I’m at the mercy of the server to get the correct information to the chef. Most of the time servers are interested and capable. Occasionally, though, there are servers who are less than helpful. I’ve had incidences where servers were growly and incidences where the server bent over backwards to bring me something exceptional – even at the same restaurant.
For example, one time David and I went with a group to a local wine and cheese shop. They have a vegan sandwich and soup on their menu. I asked the server about other vegan options, and she didn’t have any suggestions. I also mentioned that it would be great to see a vegan cheese on the menu since they already offer other vegan options. The waitress said to me snottily, “We haven’t found any that we would be comfortable serving.” I was put off by her attitude and wished she’d said something like, “I’ll pass that on to the owner that there’s interest” or “Do you have a vegan cheese you’d recommend?”
In contrast, we were back at the same place with a group several weeks later. That time we had a different server who invited the chef to our table to tell us about additional options. The chef brought out a board with all kinds of spreads they offer that just happen to be vegan – pickle relish, fig jam, olive tapenade, Marcona almonds, Spanish olives… It was the complete opposite experience from the one I’d had the time before, even though the restaurant and menu were the same.
Because the person who was helping us had more insight on the options (and more tact), it made me want to go back again. What would be even better is if the restaurant chose to list a vegan board on the menu with those spreads. That way I could be assured that every time I went the experience would be a repeat regardless of who was working that day.
Labeling makes vegetarians aware of options.
When dining with a large group, I gravitate to the obvious vegan options on the menu for simplicity’s sake. (“I’ll take the tofu stir-fry with no fish sauce & no oyster sauce, please.”) But if there’s an indicator that there’s more available, not only does that make for a more exciting dining experience, it also gives me a reason to come back and do more exploring.
There was an Indian restaurant that was a favorite of mine in Burbank. David and I visited about once a week, and we were friendly with the owner. I asked the owner to consider adding V’s to their menu, highlighting their vegan options. He agreed to it! While I had talked with the wait staff many times about the possibilities, when the owner added the V’s, I realized there were so many more options than I’d even realized. That meant that our regular Indian date became even more regular, and it gave us reason to keep going back for more.
Vegans do recon. Clear labels help.
When someone invites us to lunch, vegans go to the menu online to scope out what kind of options there are. If a restaurant mentions the word vegan in the description, puts a V next to the name, or has a symbol that denotes things are vegan, it makes that restaurant a more appealing destination.
I also email local businesses semi-regularly to find out what kind of vegan options they could offer, regardless of what’s listed on the menu. Many times a place that at first glance isn’t very vegan friendly, can offer some surprisingly good meals.
Recently I emailed a restaurant that opened several months ago about vegan options. Their menu didn’t look particularly welcoming, but I’d heard good things about the place, and I wanted to see if they could accommodate me. The owner wrote me back with several options – a few appetizers, a salad, and a couple of entrée choices.
We went there with Ashley and Adam for dinner. I ordered the huevos without huevos, which came on a platter with black beans, potatoes, bell peppers, onions, and fried tortillas. The server came back to our table after I ordered and said that the chef wanted to make sure that I enjoyed my meal and that it was substantive enough without the usual egg.
“Do you like kale and heirloom tomatoes? We could add those to your dish.”
Those are two of my favorite ingredients, and so I heartily agreed. When they brought the plate to the table, it reminded me of an elegant version of puffy nachos. I will post about the restaurant at some later time, but let’s just say, my mouth was very impressed. I look forward to going back again, and I’m pleased my legwork worked. However, I would have gone in so much earlier had I realized what an excellent meal they could make for vegans. By adding a V to the menu, who knows how many more people would also be inclined to try?
When it’s an interesting choice, vegans will keep coming back.
Any place can provide a spinach salad. And fine, that will do. But I’ll make frequent returns if a restaurant offers something creative and more interesting than a baked potato. Great examples of this are Hugo’s in Los Angeles and Krunkwich or Tacopocalypse in Des Moines. They have non-vegan items on their menu, but they also offer really interesting vegan options. A bean burrito is acceptable, but a burrito filled with seitan andouille is considerably more interesting.
More vegan options means more total customers.
After telling us about their experience at the restaurant with no labeled vegetarian options, Adam noted that there are lots of places in town where he and Ashley simply don’t eat. The meat-heavy menus don’t offer anything enticing to his wife, and Adam wouldn’t feel comfortable watching her have a plain iceberg lettuce salad while he eats a full meal.
As numbers of vegans and vegetarians continue to grow, hopefully restaurants will see that there’s a market there and put more vegan options clearly on the menu. And if there’s a restaurant in your area that you’d like to see offering more vegan options – ask. The only way they can know is if we tell them. More vegan options means more total customers – people who are interested in plant-based meals, people who identify as vegan, and the people who love them.
(For more on this topic, check out my post Should Vegans Eat at Non-Vegan Restaurants?)