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!

Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan!

I felt I needed to write a response to an article on Ecorazzi called “If you are on a plant based diet, stop calling yourself vegan!

The title, and especially the exclamation mark, made me almost physically unwell (I’m only exaggerating a little bit here). As far as titles go, it kind of says it all. Probably the author has the best intentions (though they may be unpure, like with all of us), but this way of thinking and communicating is so unproductive and so damaging, I just don’t know where to start.

The author believes that the health vegans – which obviously she doesn’t want to call vegans but rather plant-based people or something – are “hijacking” the vegan movement. She wants to kind of forbid health vegans to call themselves vegan. Apart from the fact that telling people not to use a word is kind of annoying and nasty, it is also very unproductive to ostracize health vegans from “our club”.

plant based or vegan

I’ve written much more on this, but just very briefly: demand for vegan products, whatever the motivation behind that demand, will raise the choice in vegan products. Vegan eating thus becomes easier, our dependence on animal products decreases, and it becomes way easier to care about ethics when people feel they don’t have much to lose anymore. The health vegans are actually among the people who are the easiest to target with an ethical message. Indeed, many “ethical vegans”(I dislike the term) started out as health vegans.

At the risk of overanalyzing, here’s an explanation for the kind of exclusive behavior and communication that we read in said article. This is from a psychology textbook. I’ll leave it to you to see if it can somehow apply. Keep in mind the “ethical vegans” vs. “health vegans” dichtotomy when you read it.

“People like to be seen in terms of identities important to them. Being seen in terms of other identities, especially erroneous ones, can evoke “categorization threat“. We also do not like it when another group is so similar to ours, because it undermines the very essence of what our group is that makes us different and special. In other words we tend to be most sensitive when the other group actually is similar to our own (…). Groups that are too similar to our own can therefore threaten the unique identity of the group: “distinctiveness threat“. Some have even argued that having a distinctive group identity is even more fundamental than avoiding a negative one.”*

Sound familiar?

I had this thought: in the end, I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using it altogether (some people say I should anyway, as I do some unvegan things!). Kind of like The Animalist is saying here. But the problem is, then the only people using the word vegan will be the more fundamentalist ones, and we’d have to start all over again with a new word. So I guess I’m not ready to give up on the word vegan yet, and rather be one more person who uses it in a rational, compassionate, positive and inclusive way. Want to join me?

Update: this topic was discussed on this Bearded Vegans podcast

* Hewstone, M. Stroebe, W. & Jonas, K (2012), An introduction to social psychology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. (5th edn.)