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.”

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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.