Written by Simone le Roux
Let’s get this out the way: How do you know someone is a vegan? They tell you. Also, they get anxious every time they’re invited out to eat.
While you may not personally be interested in veganism/vegetarianism, the odds are that you have a friend or two who has decided not to eat animal products. For those friends, going out to eat is a minefield of embarrassment and disappointment.
Although the number of vegans, vegetarians and people trying to eat less meat is increasing, many restaurants fail to meet the needs of this growing market. As someone who has been a vegetarian for over a decade, I know all too well the sinking feeling of realising that the restaurant I am sitting at is bad at catering to people like me. As someone who worked in hospitality for a hot two seconds, I also understand why restaurants inadvertently disappoint their meat-free patrons.
Dearest restaurant owners, here’s what your vegan/vegetarian customers wish you knew.
1. We hate being Difficult
Let’s get this straight for the haters: if you don’t want to cater to a certain dietary preference, don’t. However, if you won’t be catering to a specific diet, please make that abundantly clear on your website, in your signage, or on your menu.
Despite what countless jokes poking fun at vegans and vegetarians say, most of us try to cause as little inconvenience as possible. We do not want to make things more difficult for the people around us because of a choice that we made about our diets. We’re also tired of everyone hating us, so we try to get and maintain a good reputation.
There are consequently few things in this world has uncomfortable as going for lunch with a group of people only to slowly realise that you can’t eat a single thing on the menu. When this happens, you have three options and all of them suck: You can ask to alter the least offensive menu item (and still pay full price), you can order the most filling drink available and wait to eat later, or you can ruin everyone’s plans by asking to find a different restaurant.
No one wants to do any of those things, and no one wants to eat lunch while staring at a sad, hungry person. This can easily be avoided by restaurants being forthright about who they do and do not cater towards. If they explicitly say they are not vegan friendly, vegans and vegan friends can safely avoid the above situation without hugely inconveniencing anyone.
And none of this half-assed stuff either. Don’t say you cater for vegetarians and pop a salad on the menu, or insist they can just order a plate of chips. Catering for someone implies that they are going to get a full meal and we all know that a salad is a sad shadow of a meal, so don’t start.
2. Don’t Kill Two Birds with One Stone
So, you’ve made the decision to cater to herbivores. However, you aren’t sure how to create a convincing meal without meat, never mind a convincing meal without meat, dairy or eggs. Not to worry, you just find a vegan recipe online, modify it to suit your restaurant and call it a day. Vegetarians can eat vegan food, so there’s no need to repeat this process, right? Just have all your meals as vegan. Sorted. Or else, make a vegetarian meal (it’s easier anyway) and tell vegans they can just order it without mayo, cheese and, oh right, the bread has egg in it, too.
Here’s the thing about having ONE vegan/vegetarian meal: vegetarians goddamn love cheese. It is the alter at which we kneel. Now imagine that you are a vegetarian going out for a veggie burger and seeing that, instead of Vegetarian Gold, you’re going to have to deal with vegan mayonnaise, which most vegans don’t even like. Or else imagine being a vegan and realising that the restaurant isn’t vegan-friendly like they said, because you’ll still have to ask for omissions from your meal while paying full price.
As I said, we truly do not want to create a fuss. However, it isn’t a herculean task to put a couple of extra, separate items on the menu. The average burger restaurant will have about five different topping options for beef burgers alone, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them having at least two separate veggie burgers. Having one option to cater to the needs of two different diets is lazy at best and rude at worst.
3. We like Trash Too
Going animal-free has an aura of health around it. The words “vegan” and “vegetarian” bring forth images of salad, kale, chia seeds and whatever the hell aquafaba is. This isn’t a huge leap to make: Many people give up meat for health-related reasons. Moreover, anyone who doesn’t like vegetables is going to have a tough time being vegan. We certainly do eat a lot of healthy food.
However, a lot of us, especially when eating out, would like to eat utter trash just like the rest of our friends. I can’t count the number of times I have ordered the vegetarian pizza and received what was essentially a salad on top of some whole-wheat bread. The results for ordering a veggie burger have virtually been the same. I didn’t order a burger because I wanted a healthy meal. I ordered the burger because I want grease, decadent toppings and cheesy, carby goodness.
While many restaurants do this with the best of intentions, it’s often where they fall short. It’s hard for some chefs to imagine any vegan food being an indulgence, so they make it the punishment that vegan food can easily be. Several of my vegetarian and vegan friends have declared that they don’t intend to go back to a specific restaurant after being served a meal that, while advertised as junk food, was neither an indulgence nor satisfying. Speaking of satisfying…
4. We need Protein
This is the big one. Contrary to popular belief, it absolutely is possible to get enough protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It just requires a fair amount of effort. Plant-based proteins are delicious, but they often require a lot of preparation. Moreover, plant proteins are considered “incomplete” – they lack some amino acids that we need to survive. We therefore need to eat a variety of plant proteins often and consistently. Health aside, us putting in the time and effort to get enough plant-based protein is worthwhile because protein is also what makes one feel full after a meal.
A lot of people who try to cook meat-free for the first time understandably assume that they simply need to omit meat. In fact, cooking meat-free means that you’re replacing the meat with a different source of protein. This mistake leads a lot of people to believe that eating meat-free isn’t satisfying or it causes first-timers to try and fill up with carbohydrates like bread and pasta, leading to a deficiency.
As a restaurant that has chosen to cater to the needs of vegans and vegetarians, it is your obligation not only to omit animal by-products, but to replace them with something nutritionally equivalent. Ask any vegan/vegetarian and they’ll tell you how sick to death they are of the classic spinach and feta filling they receive in most vegetarian options. They’ll tell you how a giant mushroom is not a satisfying substitute for a burger patty, and that butternut is a vegetable best used as a complement rather than the star of the show.
This is also something that is easy to accomplish. Plant-based proteins such as legumes and soy are usually less expensive than their meaty equivalents, and often easy to get creative with. As a restaurant owner, your goal should be to have all your customers leave full and happy rather than counting the minutes until they can go home and eat the protein that you didn’t think to provide.
Restaurants who cater to vegans and vegetarians, we salute you. It is a much-appreciated service. However, with a few small changes, you could go from ensuring your meat-free patrons are fed, to ensuring that they are as happy as your meat-eating patrons.
If you are interested in eating less meat or treating your meat-free friends, there are some wonderful ideas here.
If you’re interested in quitting meat yourself, this is a great place to start.
If you’re an athlete who would like to go meat-free but you’re concerned about keeping your nutrition at performance standards, this website is for you.