How to cater to vegans at your non-vegan restaurant

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.

Paul Jarvis is the author of Eat Awesome, a vegan e-cookbook. He lives in Tofino.

Comments (35) Add New Comment
soundspeed
FYI, on the vast majority of cakes, especially ones in restaurants, icing isn't anywhere close to being vegan. Also, most cakes aren't' at all vegan, either.
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Ginga
FYI It's real easy to make vegan icing and cake.
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RF
I'd like restaurants to consider some options for those of us who don't particularly like food. Orthorexics should have some choices as well.
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cathy
although not a vegan, i often prefer vegan food and will seek out restaurants who offer those choices.
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Anton
"Be Creative"
I just thought of the flip side of that, like a restaurant that offered "Plain Cucumber" or something and haven't been able to stop laughing.... God I crack myself up when I'm tired
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ok
thats fair, I will give you vegan choices when I can order a steak at a vegan restaurant
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CMurph
Dear 'ok,'

A little education here for you since your comment shows that you are lacking in knowledge on the subject. First off, you can get steak almost anywhere. So it's not like you don't have that choice; hence the request to have vegan choices since not everyone wants to order/eat tortured animals which, in turn, causes endless fatal diseases to humans through consumption (some are starting to make that connection), a ridiculous strain on the environment, and of course, a horrible existence to the animals who are then mercilessly tortured as they are being killed just so you can chow down on a piece of animal flesh for a few minutes. You have that choice anywhere you go. The reason there are specifically 'vegan' restaurants, is because there is nowhere else to go because we are so inundated with the western diet of garbage and torture. I don't care if it sounds extreme. Extreme is not making the connection between the crap you eat and the diseases almost everyone seems to have these days, and then getting your chest cracked open and told you can no longer eat certain things. We are asking for something reasonable, that is good for our health (because we all don't want to die the way we've seen family members/friends suffer and die), good for the environment (on the earth WE have to share with YOU), and is not contributing to the horrific abuse of animals. I don't see how that is so offensive. Also, there are people that are allergic to things and they want vegan choices because they cater to specific things that people can't eat. The restaurant business world would be wise to jump at the chance to offer choices to a group that is steadily growing in numbers by double almost every year, for various reasons. It is money in their pockets.
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welivehappy
Comments on the internet make me sad.
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Natty
Can't go wrong with meat-free chili and a side of tortilla chips. Cheap to make and will sell well no matter the crowd. Offer cheese and sour cream as optional additions.
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Vangal
Wow, CMurph... preach much? Some like steaks, some don't. To each his own.
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AKG
Ah, I knew if I read through the comments I'd eventually hit the 'annoying preachy vegan' commenter. Thanks for maintaining the status quo, CMurph!
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CMurph
I won't apologize for educating people, no matter what YOU call it, AKG and Vangal. Facts and education is preaching to you because you haven't checked into it and it challenges things you would rather not know about. As for 'to each his own,' no one seems to care that a third party has no choice in the matter because you have decided that being should be considered 'food.'
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CMurph
I love how the endless barrage of meat/dairy/egg/junk-considered-food commercials and people constantly pushing these things at us don't get called preachy, but throw some facts out there, and BAM! LOL Regardless, when you're lying on a table about to have your chest cracked open due to your diet, then you can tell me I was just being 'preachy.'
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StepUp
To all of those predictable "I-loves-me-some-meat!" commenters ragging on the vegan, let's see you put your money where your mouth is: see if you have the gall to kill an innocent animal for your next meal ... I bet it ends there. The convenience of having thousands of pounds of carcass readily available at your lazy, cholestoral-filled fingertips has dullened & skewed your morality.

I'm all for having you gluttons sign a waiver that my tax dollars don't have to pay for your inevitable health problems that you WILL exeprience.

Check out this doc & educate yourselves:
http://www.forksoverknives.com/
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RF
It's weird how vegetarians and vegans, great lovers of all things living, almost always mention the deaths of those they argue with and usually with some degree of relish or passive-aggressive stink on it.

Also weird that many non-vegan people in my family lived to decently ripe old ages without having their chests "cracked open."

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CMurph
Sorry, we just get sick of the same tired excuses and comments from people who actually have never checked into the facts. And yes, for the people who know what happens to these animals and the environment and the health of their loved ones and still don't care, I don't have much compassion. I save my compassion for those who have some for others. I don't relish anyone hurting, but I certainly won't apologize for giving out the warning signals that were given to me. As for the decent ripe old ages, the way they ate back then is not the way they eat now. It's totally changed and if people aren't even going to admit to that, then the blinders are on nice and snug.
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Lhenry
How funny! I was just thinking that there has to be a carnist troll or two on here for sure, even though it is a blog about catering to vegans. Just can't resist, even though you're the cause of so much misery to begin with, eh? Thanks for maintaining the status quo with the same old tired excuses for why it's okay to torture and kill for your taste buds. Kudos!
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JanaTheVeganPiranha
Carnists HAVE to be crass and compassionless- otherwise they would have to confront their own cruelty, which they are disinclined to do. "Some people like steak and some dont'- just a personal choice"- NOT for the cow! Slavery isn't just a personal choice to the slave either. Rape isn't just a personal choice to the victim, and DEATH is more final than rape. No- your steak is NOT "just a personal choice", and your laws do NOT supersede reality. SomeBODY dies, someBODY with a personality, thoughts and ideas, better reasons to live than to be tortured and eaten for pleasure. Go kill yourself or YOUR kids if you want "YOUR meat". You don't, because you are a coward and a thief.
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Anand
RF, vegans talk about the death of humans, even the ones we're arguing with, not with relish, but with sadness. Our hope is that people live longer and healthier lives. And the problem is getting worse now with so much processed food and chemicals in agriculture (animal and plant). So your non-vegan relatives who lived to ripe old ages had very different diets than most people today.
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Anand
Vangal, you said the most import thing in this whole tread: "To each his own." To the cattle, their life is their own. Not ours.
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