Of Vegans, Veto Votes, and Restaurants

I tend to get into hot water when I speak about Vegans, but here I am again, dipping my toes into the (non)blood infested waters of vegan politics and their place in our culinary culture.

The reason I’m dipping said toe is due to a recent post written over at the Huffington Post by Kathy Freston, entitled Vegan Food in Restaurants: The Changing Tide of Food Preferences (Listen Up, Restaurants!). I’ll give you a moment to digest what she wrote.

Back? Okay, good.

TThere’s a lot to talk about here, but I want to start with one key part:

- A 2009 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News suggested adding vegetarian/vegan options to the menu as one of its top strategies for improving business. The publication noted that vegetarian food is generally less expensive for restaurants to procure, and mentioned the “veto vote,” the tendency for families with one or more vegetarians to bypass any restaurant that serves no meat-free fare.

What she’s saying is this – entire families would go to a restaurant if they catered to everyone in that family. If one person (in this case, a vegan or vegetarian) isn’t catered to, then the restaurant loses out. In essence, the restaurant is leaving money on the table by not cutting a wider swath in their menu options.

This argument strikes me as a tad bit disingenuous. Because here is the first rule of business – you can’t please everyone. or to put it another way, many families and friends don’t go to Sushi restaurants because a friend or family member doesn’t like Sushi. It’s the same, exact, situation. Should sushi restaurants put steak or pasta on their menus to ensure they get more customers?

I can hear some of the arguments now. “Restaurants need to start being healthier”, some will say. Others might argue that it’s not all that much effort to add a truly vegan or vegetarian option. I’d be more willing to consider that. But this isn’t what Freston is doing. At the end of the piece she offers the following:

Here’s a little starter guide:

- Instead of milk or cream, use almond, soy or cashew cream
- Instead of butter, use Earth Balance (you would not know the difference)
- Instead of chicken broth, use vegetable broth
- Instead of chicken, use Gardein, seitan or tofu
- Instead of ground beef, use Smart Ground meatless crumbles or lentils
- Instead of cheese, use Daiya or Teese non-dairy cheese

These are ingredient suggestions. And yes, people can tell the difference between Earth Balance and butter, let alone non-dairy cheese from regular cheese. And any chef worth their salt will as well.

Somewhere in her post is a valid point – a chef should be willing to explore options and new territory to see if they can increase sales. Figuring out how to do a vegan risotto is really not that difficult of a task, and adding it to the menu may bring new people to the restaurant.

However, restaurants are not in business to please everyone. It’s impossible and impractical. So that means that people whose tastes differ from the owner and/or chef of any given restaurant are simply going to have to learn to compromise or lose out on the experience of that restaurant.