How to Cater to Vegans at Your Non-Vegan Restaurant

On my most recent road trip (with no specific destination), I’ve found myself in lots of places that aren’t exactly in the “Best Vegan Cities in the World” handbook (if such a handbook existed). And while I’ve had a ton of amazing dining experiences at non-vegan restaurants, I have unfortunately had a lot of experiences that could have easily gone much better if restaurants knew a few key things about veganism. 

This is a photo from a Thai restaurant that didn’t have a single vegan item on their menu, but was happy to make us something. We asked in advance to being seated and were pleased to find out they made every dish from scratch – so leaving out non-vegan ingredients was easy.

Below was written to simply share some ideas should any restaurant want to feed vegans. I don’t believe restaurants have to as it’s their business, and their call. But should they, I guarantee word would spread to the vegan community.

Dear food establishment owners/staff,

I spend months of each year traveling. A lot of that time is spent discovering and eating at new restaurants. But here’s the thing — I’m vegan. That means I do not eat meat (including fish), dairy, butter, honey or any ingredient that is made or harvested from animals. What do I eat then? Whole fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, spices, etc — it’s a broad range of easy to find ingredients.

To start, let me clarify, you don’t have to cater to vegans. It’s your business so it’s completely your call. This is written to simply share some ideas and suggestions so that if you do want to cater to the vegan community, can you easily do so. I guarantee that if you do, and do it well, word will spread. Even if it’s a single, well-made dish.

YOUR STAFF NEED TO KNOW YOUR MENU

Simple product knowledge goes a long way. I’d rather be told something is definitely not vegan than have a server have to go ask multiple times because they don’t have a clue what’s in any of the dishes on your menu. This happens more than you think (I can count on a single hand how many times a server has actually known their menu well). It’s a bonus if they know off-hand which dishes accommodate different diets.

IF YOU’RE GOING TO ASSERT THAT ANYTHING ON YOUR MENU IS OR CAN BE MADE VEGAN, ABSOLUTELY KNOW WHAT “VEGAN” IS

I have been served meat, dairy and honey so many times at restaurants after being told something could be made vegan. That just gets my hopes up and disappoints. So if you are offering to make something vegan by modifying a dish or creating a new one, make sure it is actually vegan. And if you aren’t sure, just ask — vegans are more than happy to talk about what is vegan and what isn’t (getting vegans to stop talking about it is another matter altogether). If you do make a mistake with the dish and serve it with a non-vegan ingredient, offer to fix it and move on. If you aren’t comfortable making substitutions or modifying dishes — I’d rather be told you can’t do it than have it done begrudgingly or in a half-assed way.

BE CREATIVE IF YOU’RE GOING TO OFFER A VEGAN OPTION

“Pan Roasted Vegetables” on pasta is not creative. Being creative is easy though, just put as much effort into creating a vegan dish as you did into creating the rest of your menu. If you need ideas, ask someone (even ask me — I’d freely help you brainstorm) or experiment — if you and/or your staff like the vegan dish, that’s a good sign. Or flip through a vegan cookbook for ideas, there are hundreds (I even wrote one).

OMNIVORES WILL ORDER A VEGAN OPTION IF IT’S GOOD

I can’t even count how many times I’ve been out for dinner with omnivores who’ve wished they’d ordered my vegan option instead of their meat dish. I also know a lot of people that aren’t vegan but eat vegan the majority of the time. Some people have rules about eating vegan too, like “I eat vegan 4 nights a week”. A vegan option will cater to far more people than just vegans.

VEGANS TALK

Vegans love to talk about places they eat and the vegan options available. If you have a good vegan dish, word will travel quickly. Want to tempt in vegans to eat your vegan dish? Promote it on social media and on your online menu (note: have an online menu). I routinely drive hours out of the way if I’ve received word of a good restaurant with a vegan dish or two. If the food is good, I tell thousands of people online how good it was. Make sure there’s mention of your vegan option(s) online though, or else vegans might find your restaurant, see nothing they can eat there, and promptly look somewhere else.

MAKE SOME EASY ADJUSTMENTS TO OFTEN-USED INGREDIENTS

Having items on-hand to help many more dishes become vegan is not a bad thing. Non-dairy creamer, for example, can go a long way if you serve coffee or tea. Same with items like vegan butter, vegan mayonnaise, vegan sour cream, etc. These all store well and can go a long way towards enticing vegans to frequent your business. A bonus would be to make your own of each of these (which is pretty easy to do). Make a killer, homemade vegan pesto mayonnaise to add to any sandwich, pizza, etc — and vegans will be climbing mountains to sing your praises.

The world (and restaurants found in it) by no means need to cater to vegans. I am not so self-entitled that I think every restaurant should have a vegan option. We’re a relatively small group of folks that eat out. But our numbers are growing. And past that, the number of people who know about food and care what goes into each dish is growing even faster. So knowing your menu inside and out and offering easy ways to accommodate different diets can make sense and more importantly, make you more money.

And don’t forget, a good vegan dessert is literally icing on the cake.

Written by Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis is the author of Eat Awesome. He’s a web designer, author and gentleman of adventure. His latest book is Everything I Know.


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  • edi

    “IF YOU’RE GOING TO ASSERT THAT ANYTHING ON YOUR MENU IS OR CAN BE MADE VEGAN, ABSOLUTELY KNOW WHAT “VEGAN” IS”

    I’d add: know it AND communicate it convincingly to the customer. I’ve multiple times been told I’d get a vegan dish (sometimes asserted with great certainty) only to receive a meal with animal ingredients: meat, milk, eggs, you name it. Those experiences make me wary when staff simply say they’ll serve a vegan meal without being more specific.

    Don’t keep your customers in uncomfortable limbo like that! Provide details on what vegan meal you will offer and make the customer know that you understand the term vegan. Replace “The chef will fix something vegan for you” with something like “Would you like a vegan version of the soup? We will replace all animal ingredients, using soy milk and vegetable stock. Previous customers have only had good things to say about the vegan version of the soup.” (Of course, don’t say any of that if it isn’t true.)

    It is NOT enough that you, the restaurant staff, know what veganism is because even if the customer in the end receives a great vegan meal chances are he/she was still kept in uncomfortable limbo prior to getting the meal. That’s not the experience you want for your guests, is it? If a vegan guest is really hungry and perhaps in a hurry he/she hates that uncertain waiting. I once went to a place for a quick meal, was told they’d fix something vegan but ten minutes later received a dish with animal products. I had no choice but to leave on an empty stomach in order to catch a train. There is no way in hell I’ll ever go back to that restaurant and I’ve made that crystal clear whenever friends have brought the place up as a candidate for some gathering.