June 22, 2012

Dear Restaurant Industry: You Suck at Catering to Vegetarians.

One month out of every year, I take a vacation from my typical carnivorous lifestyle and forego eating meat in favor of a vegetarian diet.

I do this for many reasons: to cleanse the system, experiment with a healthier diet, lighten my load on the planet and to exercise my willpower muscles.

And it does take willpower. I don’t typically enjoy the vegetarian diet (in fact, I usually take my month off in February because it’s the shortest month of the year!) One of the reasons I find it so difficult is because I travel often and eat many of my meals in restaurants, and restaurants tend to be really sucky at catering to vegetarians.

Most restaurants (in the U.S. anyway) tend to feature only one token vegetarian entrée on their menu, preferring instead to focus on the far more popular dishes that all center around having a slab of animal flesh in the middle of the plate, alongside a few accompaniments of more nutritious sides.

Since I don’t like eggplant or tofu (staples in many of these token vegetarian entrees) and I try to avoid eating too many carbs (the easy filler for restaurants to throw on a menu to satisfy their vegetarian customers), I usually have a hard time finding vegetarian options that I will actually enjoy. Because of this, I spend most of my vegetarian month feeling like a scavenger, never quite sure where or what my next meal will be.

I’m in the middle of one of my months of meat-denial now, and this challenge was highlighted by a fairly typical interaction I had recently in a posh Fort Lauderdale eatery. Here’s how it went when I tried to order my meal, after noticing there were virtually no vegetarian options on the menu (not even in the salads section):

Me: I’ll have the Mediterranean Salad but I would like to have grilled mushrooms instead of the grilled chicken breast.

Server: We don’t have any grilled mushrooms.

Me: You have grilled mushrooms on your Prosciutto Panini Sandwich.

Server: Why can’t you stop being difficult and just eat animals like everyone else?

(Okay, this is what he implied with his facial expression and body language, but what he actually said with his voice was:)

Server: Okay, but I will have to charge you extra.

Me: Don’t you think mushrooms probably cost you less than chicken breasts?

Server: Yes, but the kitchen only orders enough mushrooms for our Prosciutto Panini Sandwich.

Me: Bullshit!

(Okay, this was what I was thinking, but what I actually said out loud was:)

Me: Fine.

This is a typical restaurant interaction, and luckily, I only have to deal with it for one month out of every year. But I feel bad for year-round vegetarians that have to face this kind of discrimination on an ongoing basis.

The funny thing is, these restaurants are missing out on a huge opportunity. Restaurateurs: There is a segment of customers out there who want to buy things made from the cheapest ingredients in your kitchen! Furthermore, most restaurants suck at making them happy—figure this out and you’ve got some loyal customers!

Here are a few ways for restaurateurs to easily tap into this market segment:

1. If you don’t have many veggie options on your menu, include a small note that says, “We would be happy to customize a dish based on your dietary preferences. Ask your server for suggestions.”

2. Train your wait staff on simple substitutions that can be made to convert any of your meat-laden entrees into vegetarian options. A vegetarian customer is an opportunity not an inconvenience.

3. Try to be creative with the few token vegetarian dishes on your menu. Cheese pizza, eggplant Parmesan, grilled vegetable sandwich, pasta with marinara sauce: these are all good, but most vegetarians are probably sick of them. Maybe you can come up with something new?

It’s time to stop segregating vegetarians and forcing them to eat in “health food” stores or “vegetarian” cafes. Restaurateurs who open their doors to this audience will find a loyal and enlightened customer base that is not only good for business, but good for the planet.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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