Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegans are good for your restaurant's business

This mock duck made of
seitan is a vegan choice at
Wild Ginger in
Huntingdon Valley, Pa. 
(Photos by Kim Stahler)
By Kim Stahler

Dear restaurant owners,

I need your help, because I think you want my money. And I want to give it to you. I love to eat, but your menu offers nothing for me as a vegan, and there are a lot more people like me than you think.

I am officially done with patronizing restaurants that don't put even one plant-based entree on the menu. I am looking at you, seafood restaurant, Italian bistro, everyday diner, and fancy New American place. Isn’t veganism all over the news? What if Bill Clinton or Ellen & Portia come to dine? Trained chefs don’t just learn to cook dairy and meat, right? Creamy, savory, rich, spicy, flavorful food ideas crowd the pages of the plentiful vegan cookbooks out right now. There are French ones too. And don’t forget dessert!

Why should you accommodate me, when I am the minority? Well, I bring friends, kind and considerate friends who usually want to go somewhere that does not exclude me. In fact, when my colleagues or family plan a meal out, I am often the one asked to pick the spot. Restaurants with nothing for my spouse and me lose out on business not only from us but also from these considerate omnivores, a sort of vegan veto. It happens a lot. We want to pay you for your culinary knowledge and creativity! Just give us a plant-based dish or two or three—we’ll come back for the others and bring our friends.

Before I visit you, I will check out your menu online. If there is nothing I can order right off the menu, I usually move on to another choice. See, you just lost me (and my group), and it didn’t have to happen. I occasionally call or e-mail to see if you have an alternative menu not listed online. I want to know whether there are any vegan entrees, NOT which dishes can be altered. Paying full price for a dish with the savory items removed is not desirable, because I know that chefs create dishes with flavors and textures to complement each other. Vegan food on your menu shows that you get it.

“But we can make you something.” I hear that a lot. I used to be happy about that but no longer am. Going out in times of limited money means, for a few hours, a carefree oasis with friends, and I have no desire to call attention to my diet in this environment, especially with work colleagues or in-laws—or to negotiate when I am trying to relax. There are too many questions to ask and too many dishes that end up falling far short of even my own fledgling cooking skills. I can see from the other items on your menu that there are plenty of ingredients that could combine to make something tasty, but no one should have to rely on my underdeveloped ability to create something. You are the experts.

A vegan dessert like this one at Sprig
and Vine in New Hope, Pa. would
please an omnivore.
I have worked in plenty of restaurants, and I know how cooks and servers dread special instructions. It isn’t an unwillingness to accommodate but rather the increased risk that things will be forgotten, misunderstood by the cook, screwed up, be sent back, and so on, risking the tip. I don’t care to put staff through this, nor do I want my dining companions to have to deal with it. Dishes that are ready to go are easier on your staff. If you label the dish as vegan, I will love you even more, because I don't have to pester my server. If I am forced into the position of being the high-maintenance one, I will just go elsewhere.

Restaurant owners may believe that no one will order a vegan dish; I agree that no one will order a boring bland one. Plenty of omnivores enjoy a good vegan meal and seek it out, for the lack of cholesterol, lower calories, and maybe the good karma. My dad has had a heart attack and appreciates a cholesterol-free dish, but he would never ask for one. I know many part-time vegans and vegetarians—some people don't want to be labeled but simply love vegetables and the nutrient blast they pack. But most such people don’t find yet another pasta, salad, or grilled veggie dish appealing, nor do they want to pay $15-20 for it. How depressing that this ends up representing vegan food to them.

It's always good for a restau-
rant to label the vegan choices
like in this menu from Thai
L'Elephant in Phoenixville, Pa.
Restaurateurs, you don’t have to accommodate us, but you are losing out on a rapidly growing sector of eaters, and their friends, if you don’t. Meat consumption is on the decline. Creative vegan dishes on a traditional restaurant menu wave a flag of welcome to alternative eaters, and you can be sure we will tell everyone we know.

So for now, my spouse and I rely on a small group of ethnic restaurants: the local Asian and Middle Eastern places. Special occasions send us to Philadelphia, but we would love to spend our money locally, with you. There are thousands of vegetables, legumes, grains, and nuts out there waiting to be showcased, and you will be contributing to better health in your community. And I will bring my friends, family, and colleagues.

Kim Stahler has been vegetarian since 1990 and vegan since 2009. She works as a college librarian and lives with her spouse and three cats outside Philadelphia. Her other interests include worker advocacy, New Urbanism, buying less stuff, and writing letters with old fountain pens.