Dear Restaurant Industry: You Suck at Catering to Vegetarians.

Via Jeremy McCarthy
on Jun 22, 2012
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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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About Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy is the Director of Global Spa Operations and Development at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. He is a regular contributing author for several spa industry books and magazines, and hosts a blog at He holds a master degree in Applied Positive Psychology from University of Pennsylvania and is applying positive psychology to the customer experience in spas and hospitality. He teaches a course in Positive Leadership for Spas and Hospitality for the UC Irvine Spa and Hospitality Management program.


14 Responses to “Dear Restaurant Industry: You Suck at Catering to Vegetarians.”

  1. thank you thank you thank you! as an ex-vegan and full time vegetarian I am soooo tired of practically apologizing for my food choice. I will gladly figure out HOW to make something vegetarian (or vegan when it works) for myself just don't charge me or make me feel like a criminal! (and hey if I don't get the meat on the sandwich don't charge me extra for extra veggies it's really a fair trade…seriously)

  2. Great post – and very timely. I recently stopped in at a bar & grill type place with friends and ordered the veggie burger. The waitress laughed at me. Literally, laughed because I ordered the veggie burger. I did leave a comment card and I will never go back to that restaurant.

  3. cathywaveyoga says:

    just ask for the decorative parsley and kale to be chopped up and put on top of a spinach salad

  4. Anne-Marie says:

    …Or don’t go eat at places that don’t have veg/vegan/gluten-free options. Better yet, cook amazingly delicious meals at home! I know that I can cook the tastiest, healthiest, organic options at home. (and invite you’re friends over so it feels like a bistro!)

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    (Replying to myself)…I meant "YOUR friends."

  6. Laura says:

    As someone who suffers from food allergies, I understand. The fact that I might die is just evidence of me being "difficult" according to certain servers. Maybe make a point of reviewing places on sites like Yelp to give others a heads up?

  7. Melanie says:

    Probably they only had "enough" mushrooms for a certain sandwich is that they are only in some packaged thing and not freshly prepared. I have tried ordering spinach enchiladas without cheese or mushrooms and the restaurant wouldn't do it. Found out it is a prepackaged mix. I think avoiding the big chain restaurants.

  8. Melanie says:

    A restaurant in Houston – that has been in operation since the 50's, BBQ Inn, actually serves kale crunches as garnish and seems to be oblivious to the fact it is a wonderfully delicious food to EAT. The bulk of what they serve is meat and potato based. The kale is the best reason to go because it doesn't understand vegetarian at all.

  9. MJ Shaar says:

    So true, Jeremy!

    I’m not vegetarian, but meat or no meat, I too get tired of the same old classics that offer enough calories to fuel a whole family but not enough nutritive value to meet a baby’s daily requirements! I used to enjoy going to restaurants a lot (like 4-5 meals per week), and have decided about a year ago to eat out only once per week as a way to improve my health habits.

    That begin said, restaurants who do cater to the healthy eater are busy like crazy! We have a Season’s 52 (healthy, seasonal food with fewer than 475 calories per meal) right near us, and you basically can’t get in without reserving a few days in advance – whether it’s for lunch or dinner. So you’re right on with your comment that healthy and vegetarian offerings are a huge opportunity.

    It’s really time we change how we do things with regards to food around here. I praise you for this article – hopefully it causes a few restaurateurs to start thinking differently.


    PS: And let’s not get started on the environmental impact of restaurants that serve some of their food in plastic, use paper napkins, offer styrofoam doggie bags and that don’t recycle! Urgh…

  10. Matt says:

    First of all thank you for taking the time to write this in world where few people voice their concerns in an expressive and creative way. That being said I couldn't help but to balk at your article. I have been in the restaurant service industry for almost 20 years in New York, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and having been in kitchens, on the floor as a manager, server and Maitre'D. For many of those years I was a vegetarian, occasional vegan and often limiting my diet in other ways outside of those traditional descriptions. A restaurant's menu is their signature, it is their schtick, their identity and business; not an opportunity for you the consumer to design your own meal. A customer asks for a BLT but there's not one on the menu. "But you have all the ingredients?" "Yes, but it's not offered on the menu." In a country that is literally bursting with unique and specific places to dine and an internet designed to keep you connected to EVERYTHING why would you go to a restaurant and ask them for something that wasn't on the menu when there are certainly places offering exactly what you're looking for? These are places of business not your own private kitchen. And while accommodations are most certainly made in more instances that not; there are no "simple substitutions" when managing food cost and serving every diner at one time. It is unfortunate to me how 'easy and simple' the restaurant business seems to people. As if there is no complexity to the success and business strategy of a world class restaurant, or for any meagerly successful restaurant. Don't walk into someone's job where they're already doing it and tell them how to do it for you . Find a place that does it the way you want it. Or cook. Or go to a diner. Or order room service. In a world where there are so many options for getting what you want why try and modify? Please consider searching one of the many websites online designed for helping people find exactly what they need. And waiters are only your liaison with the kitchen and the bar. It's not them saying yes or no. It is what they've been trained to say by the people the owners choose to run their business. ANd customizing a dish . . . again. you want a customized dish, don't go somewhere that offers a menu. I apologize if any of this seems argumentative or combative, I certainly didn't intend it to be, After so many years of hearing these kinds of things I finally felt the need to reply as the voice from the other side. Restaurants are just as complicated as any other business. What they do and don't offer has story all to itself. Thank you.

  11. Thanks Matt, your point is well taken, although it is more complex than that. In the example above, there were ten of us in the restaurant and only two of us were vegetarians. If the restaurant had had a couple of vegetarian options on it, I probably would have chosen one, but they literally had none so I really had no option other than to ask them to customize something. Most of the time when I go out it is with meat-eaters (including my wife.) If I am eating by myself, I would do as you suggest and choose a restaurant that has whatever suits my palate and diet. But in a variety of social circumstances, that is not always realistic. That being said, all of your points are valid, and of course every restaurant has the right to offer whatever menu they like. One of the best restaurants I ever went to is a place in Geneva Switzerland that has only "steak frites" on the menu (actually, there's no menu since that is the only thing they serve.) But I think most restaurants do not do well by sticking to rigid rules. They build more loyalty when they are flexible enough to adapt to what their customers are looking for (and build the appropriate costs into their prices.) Many restaurants will continue to do as you suggest and stick to the menu as they see it. I am only suggesting that they are passing up an opportunity to cater to a new market segment that would be even more appreciative of good service that considers their needs since they don't always get it.

  12. Charlee says:

    To top it a notch, they should adjust to Vegan tastes as well. I have heard and read about Vegan buffets and their specialties in catering bristol.

  13. Kevin Ferrero Rocher says:

    No catering service can consider itself as such, if it can't cover special dietary needs. That alone can ruin a party, which is why I'm very particular about menu versatility when I need some long island catering services.

  14. Anne Mosley says:

    As a vegetarian, I know where you're coming from. I think what they need is to get new catering equipment that would cater to vegetarians. There are also those with special diets that they also need to address to.