Four degrees of separation: how to sell a vegan restaurant dish

Imagine a certain vegan dish in a restaurant. Let’s say it’s a dish called “Moroccan couscous”. Which of the following situations do you prefer?

When I asked what you prefer, the answer you give will of course depend on the criterion you use to assess these situations. Are you thinking about your own convenience? In that case you may prefer option one: in vegan restaurants, there is no hassle, there are no queries, no risks, no uncertainties. If you can’t have a vegan restaurant, you may prefer your vegan dishes to be clearly and neatly separated from the other ones. A physically separate vegan menu may give you the feeling that you’re really being looked after here.
But of course, our own convenience isn’t the most important aspect here – at least it isn’t for me. Much more important is: how many people will order this vegan dish?

If we look at this criterion, then we may have to conclude that the vegan restaurant may not necessarily be the best option. There are, presumably, many people who never set foot in an exclusively vegan place. At least they may not do so voluntarily (they may be dragged along by the vegan in the company). So a vegan offering inside an omnivore place may – at this point in time – be able to confront more non-vegans with the vegan idea and option than a vegan restaurant can. (This is not to say that vegan restaurants don’t have any advantages – see Vegan Islands vs. Infiltrators.)

But also within the context of an an omnivore restaurant, we have different ways of separating the vegan from the non-vegan. To what degree should we separate and identify vegan dishes?

A separate vegan menu (option 2), like I said, gives us a nice feeling, but I’m not sure if it’s very productive. The many restaurants in billionaire Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels all have separate vegan menus, but as a customer, you have to know that. The waiters don’t offer this information spontaneously, so there is little chance that a non-vegan will order a vegan dish there.

The next degree of separation is a separate vegan section on the (same) menu (option 3). Is this an interesting option? Here’s where a new study, done at the London School of Economics comes in. Behavioral science researcher Linda Bacon (I know) investigated if plant-based dishes were ordered more or less frequently when they were listed separately on a menu. The result was that in the case of a separate vegetarian section, the likelihood that these dishes were ordered dropped by a staggering 56%! (I’m assuming that the difference would be bigger still if the section carried the name “vegan dishes”).

One of the possible explanations is that a separate section may reinforce the idea among omnivores that vegetarian or vegan dishes are not for them. Imagine how you look at a section that says “gluten free” or “suitable for the lactose intolerant”. If you don’t belong in the category of people that prefers these foods or needs to eat this way, you may think that these dishes are not for you and, what’s more, lacking in something. Even worse than “vegan dishes” would obviously be a section titled “for vegans” or “for our vegan friends”. Even though this wording is rare (I have come across it) this is how most people think about vegan dishes: as dishes for vegans. In newspaper articles and reviews, vegan products, vegan fairs, vegan restaurants… are very commonly described as stuff for vegans. As vegans ourselves, we should be careful not to confirm this idea, and not automatically presume that whoever uses a vegan product, whoever is present at a vegan fair or a vegan talk… is a vegan. We are only confirming the separation between vegans and non-vegans that way.

So, at least if we’re just looking at sales figures, it seems, for now, that we shouldn’t separate vegan dishes on the menu. The next degree of separation is about incorporating the dish in the menu (option 4) while clearly labeling it. Here, of course, much will depend on the exact label we use. There are different possibilities: vegan, plant-based, vegetarian, meat-free… Alain Coumont, founder of the world famous chain Le Pain Quotidien, prefers the term “botanical”. Also, different degrees of subtlety can be used. The label can be in small or big letters, bold or not, or we could put an asterisk (*) after the menu item and explain at the bottom of the page that these are vegetarian (vegan/plant-based…) dishes. I think we should not worry about the (in)convenience for vegans here. A vegan is used to scanning menus and looking out for these things. What matters, again, is how many people order the dish.

Finally, we can avoid separating vegan from non-vegan at all (option 5). This means not communicating at all that a dish is vegan. I’m guessing that this would maximize the amount of vegan orders. But there are some downsides to this. First of all, much less than the previous options, this is not convenient for vegans at all. More importantly, if vegans don’t patronize a restaurant because at first sight it doesn’t have any vegan options on the menu, we will not be able to help boost the restaurant’s sales of the vegan dishes, and thus their commitment to offering them. In addition to that, many people may order these vegan dishes, but one could argue that if they don’t know a dish was vegan at all, it may be a missed opportunity (see also The Rise of the Stealth Vegan Restaurants).

Obviously, apart from the degree of separation and the labels we choose, there are many other factors that can influence customers’ choices. Apart from pricing, there is, for instance, the name of the dish. We can call a dish “Moroccan couscous with market fresh vegetables, toasted spices and fresh mint”, and make it sound so tasty that anyone might choose it.

As with many things, which choice is the best one is a matter of time. We can do more research and see what people want to order and eat. But if they don’t want to order vegan, that doesn’t just mean we should be careful with the label vegan (and separating the vegan from the non-vegan). It also means that we need to work more on the popularity and image of the term (assuming a term like vegan is a useful thing to have).

Ideally, vegan becomes an extremely positive term and thus a label that increases sales. We are not there yet, but we need to work towards this. The vegan movement can help with this too, in different ways. First of all, we should not see it as a negative thing when “vegan” becomes a trend, as seems to be happening in more and more places. We should appreciate any reason why people choose vegan, even if those reasons may seem superficial to us. I think it’s not a good idea either if we go around saying how all of this has nothing to do with veganism (because veganism is about ethics, etc. – see “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan“). Every time someone orders a (good) vegan dish, for whatever reason, things happen. Restaurants notice the interest. And people have a good taste experience and their hearts and minds open up a little bit more to all our moral arguments.

The rise of the stealth vegan business

The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia

We vegans love to get the word vegan out. We’d like to see it on products and restaurant menus. Just getting the word out there not only makes it easier for us vegans to identify things to eat, but should also increase awareness about veganism in general. However, what if not using the word vegan… sells more vegan stuff?

The first time I heard something like this was years ago, in a Whole Foods supermarket somewhere in California. They were supposed to have a vegan cake there. I didn’t find it, and asked the person behind the counter where it was. She showed me the cake, and said it no longer was marked vegan. She said it sold three times better since they removed the label.

More recently, I’ve seen more and more entire places that are what I call “stealth vegan”, meaning that the fact that they are vegan is communicated only very subtly, or not at all. Let me give you two examples that I recently came across.

In Melbourne (and I believe other cities in Australia) there is the Lord of the Fries chain. Lord of the Fries looks like a classic fast food place, with the usual burgers and shakes, but it is vegetarian and vegan. It is communicated, if you look well, but friends of mine estimated that not only is the majority of their clientele not vegetarian or vegan: they don’t even know they are not eating meat! I was told sometimes people only find out after months of going there.

The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia
The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia

Another example is the small ice cream chain Gela in Israel. The place where I went had a small “vegan friendly” sticker on the counter, which is actually given to them by an Israeli non-profit. I asked the person behind the counter – since I don’t read Hebrew – if there’s any other communication in the store that everything is vegan. She told me that no, most people entering don’t know that it’s all vegan.

Gela in Israel only has a vegan friendly sticker, but everything is vegan.
Gela in Israel only has a vegan friendly sticker, but everything is vegan.

One more example is Ronald’s Donuts, a hole-in-the-wall donut place in Las Vegas. Nothing on the building betrays there’s anything vegan inside, and if you want to know which donuts are vegan, you have to ask.

Why do these places – and many others – are so modest about the fact that they are all vegetarian or all vegan? It’s obviously not because they are embarrassed to use the word. Rather, it’s because they know that at this moment, the words turn more people off than they attract. Vegetarian and vegan, to most people, don’t indicate added value, they indicate subtracted value. To get a sense of what’s happening, compare this with your own reaction to an all gluten-free restaurant. If you don’t do the gluten-free thing, you’ll probably think something like me: that those dishes won’t be as good as regular dishes. Something was taken out of them (taste, perhaps?). Whether the food in such a gluten-free restaurant is actually not up to a par with regular food or not, is irrelevant, the fact is that the prejudice is there.

You may think: but aren’t they missing clients? A vegan will just walk by and never know, right? Well, they may miss some, but they probably win more. Besides, vegetarians and vegans will find their way to meatfree places anyway, by means of word of mouth, the Happy Cow app, or whatever. There is no need to put VEGAN in big letters on the storefront.

All this will change as the general population’s appreciation of vegan stuff grows. And one way to make it grow, is to let them eat vegan food, without telling them so. If they find out after they have it eaten it (and liked it), then all the better.

And just in case you didn’t realize: what makes stealth vegan business possible at all, is the fact that by now we have such amazing alternatives for many things, that it has become possible to actually trick people. That’s progress!

Le Botaniste

Some restaurant stuff today. I had lunch in Le Botaniste, in my town of Ghent, Belgium. What’s special about the recently opened Botaniste is that it is an experimental vegan place, run by the people who own the international and world reknowned chain Le Pain Quotidien. LPQ, as it’s known, is especially famous for their long “communal” wooden tables, where you can sit down together with strangers for lunch or tea. The chain was actually founded by a Belgian guy, Alain Coumont.

Coumont started the chain, which now has a couple of hundred restaurants worldwide, in 1990. He’s sort of a visionary, who believes that sooner or later, we’ll all be vegetarian. Coumont has said that the vegetarian movement is a lot bigger than we think, because most vegetarians are quiet people who don’t get to the streets to protest the parliament. He had kind of a revelatory moment when he opened his first LPQ in California and discovered how many people were asking for rice or soy milk with their coffee.

The Pain Quotidien restaurants, which also offer meat, have been carrying vegan labels on their menu items for years. Coumont believes in vegan too, but he doesn’t want to call it that, because he believes for many people it has bad connotations. His own alternative word is “botanical” – hence the name of the new place. There’s a second Botaniste in New York City by now, and on its website you can read that it’s “100% botanical.”

2016-04-07 14.41.59

For the people from Le Pain Quotidien, Le Botanist is a place to experiment and discover what people like. Ghent is a good place for that, as it’s an especially veg-friendly town: it was, at the instigation of EVA, the organization I used to work for, the first city in the world to officially support a weekly vegetarian day (Thursday in our case).

Le Botaniste is not the traditional vegan restaurant, but is presented as a “food and wine bar”: a place where it’s nice to sit and have good food and wine. It’s very much “plant based” rather than “vegan,” but I think this might attract a segment of the population that would otherwise be uninterested in entering. And as I have written often, people who have changed their diet for health or mere culinary reasons, are much more likely to change their attitudes about animals. 

And, in case you want to know: the food was pretty good.