Plant-based, raw food, and more – vegan diets have seen an incredible proliferation over the past few years. Whether it is simply cutting out meat and dairy for ethical reasons or reverting to a raw food diet to support bodily health, veganism is one of the fastest-growing food trends in the world. Today, there are over half a million vegans in the U.K., having risen by 350 per cent in the last decade. A further one third of people are consciously choosing to reduce their meat consumption, and yet, among vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians alike, reports suggest that the eating out industry isn’t keeping up with this sea-change. Yet, with so many people preferring to abstain from meat and dairy, it is essential for restaurants to provide for vegans.
Why are vegan menus important?
Over the course of my collaborations with leading restaurant owners, chefs, and hosts, I have found that the old catchphrase “variety is the spice of life” is more than just a cliché when it comes to foodservice. More and more, consumers are demanding choice and flexibility, and vegans are no different. What is interesting, however, is that providing this personalised experience is as beneficial for businesses themselves as it is more the diner. For one thing, the value of the vegetarian food market has grown from £333million in 1996 to £786.5million in 2011 (Mintel). Undoubtedly, those I have spoken to in the industry are a case and point that the more adaptable you are to change, the more successful you will be. The best restaurants offer more than mere gestural attempts at vegan food – they craft carefully thought-out vegan dishes. And both their reputation and their returns are better for it.
As Elena Orde, communications officer for the Vegan Society, told Stir It Up, providing for vegan guests does not have to be difficult:
“Caterers can open up a whole new market by including just one or two vegan options on their menus, and ensuring that they are clearly labelled and advertised. Staff should be educated about what vegans can and can’t eat, and which options are suitable, or can easily be made vegan. Stocking products such as soy milk, vegan spread and vegan ice cream is a great place to start, and all of these are easily accessible.”
Catering to vegans is a wise business move, especially as meat and dairy-free recipes are relatively cheap to produce. By simply ordering more vegetables – which are part of any restaurant menu anyway – along with the staples including legumes and pulses – many creative and interesting dishes can be created without having to invest in pricey alternatives. However, this is not just a matter of profit, it is also one of reputation. As the blog, Happy Cow warns:
“By not offering vegan choices you are excluding potential customers. And please educate your staff on what items on your menu can be made vegan. There’s no other wrath than that of a vegan scorned. If I go to a restaurant that isn’t helpful I will tell the whole world about it.”
Word gets out quickly among vegan communities – recommendations on good restaurants are shared often, perhaps more regularly than among meat-eaters, because finding somewhere that truly caters to meat and dairy-free diets is still somewhat hard to find. Various websites provide vegan guides to eating out, and countless bloggers will really talk up their favourite vegan-friendly spot.
However, as Big Hospitality points out, the decrease in meat consumption is not unique to vegan consumers. They explain that, according research from Vegetarian Express, 74 per cent of meat-eaters are planning to try new vegetarian meals out-of-home in the next year. They continue, “A third of diners have reduced the amount of meat they eat in the last twelve months, while one in ten are considering cutting it out completely.” So, really, offering substantial and inspiring vegan options is a no-brainer for everyone.
Personalisation – the premium route to vegan success
One comment that I hear time and time again from vegan and vegetarian friends is that they are tired of being offered un-inventive substitute meals when dining out. Meat substitutes such as Quorn have their place – but this place is not as the sole meat-free offering on a menu. Likewise, whilst the classic ‘spicy bean burger’ can be truly delicious, featuring it alone as a vegetarian choice smacks of thoughtlessness. Often, meat-free diners would prefer to eat a meal that is actually premised around the plant-based ingredients, rather than one where the meat has simply been taken out.
However, as Kathy Freston advises, chefs should remember that the same balance of food groups and flavours that you would expect in a meat dish ought to be upheld in vegetarian menus. She says:
“Here’s a note to any eatery owner interested in catching up with the times: offer a protein centre to your plant-based offerings. People aren’t interested in paying top dollar for boring food like stir-fried vegetables or spaghetti with marinara sauce. We don’t want just a salad; we’re hungrier than that. We’re just like everyone else: we love hearty, fulfilling food.”
“In many, many cities this is already happening. There are dishes with grilled tofu over wilted spinach and mushrooms, stuffed squash blossoms with almond ricotta, fried chickpea cakes and couscous, pizza with non-dairy cheese, and all kinds of hearty bowls with whole grains, beans, and vegetables.”
These days, there are countless ways to cook without meat and dairy, and to do it with flair. From plant butchery, where food experts such as Amber Locke experiment with vegetables as you would a joint of meat – cutting, preparing and cooking them in innovative ways to maximise their flavour and texture – to an increasing number of plant-based substitutes being proved to replicate meat textures surprisingly well – the only way for vegan food is up.
However, it is important to take the long view with vegan dining. Writing for the Independent, Susan Elkin shares her own gripe with the usual vegetarian fare:
“It all gets very samey and fashion-driven. Butternut squash and goats’ cheese are the foods of the moment and they’re almost everywhere – usually in a risotto or salad. A few years ago it was vegetable lasagne.”
Stay away from offering one staple vegan dish influenced by what you think the average vegan will like – something that merely ticks the boxes will not delight the diner. Vegan dishes still need to be inspiring and to have the perfect balance of texture, protein, spice, heat, freshness, citrus and seasoning.
Above all, two elements are essential in catering to vegans – representation and personalisation. First, it is important to demonstrate from the oft that vegan diets are represented in your menu, and that vegan diners are welcome in your restaurant. Achieve this by displaying vegan menus proudly, including various options that are not labelled as alternatives, but as desirable choices in of themselves.
Change your dishes by seasonal produce availability just as you would your regular menu, and be mindful of the principles influencing vegan choices – primarily ethics, health and environmental consciousness – by choosing organic, local, and sustainably-sourced produce. Personalisation is equally important, and will allow those with more ‘flexitarian’ attitudes to choose exactly what they would like to eat. Moreover, try to allow guests to customise every meal on the menu to be vegetarian or vegan, in order to keep everyone’s options truly open.