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 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 are these places – and many others – 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!

It’s all about creating great alternatives

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which is now banned in all but a few countries. This might never have happened if the importance of commercial whaling hadn’t diminished enormously since the late nineteenth century.

Whales – and sperm whales especially – used to be an important source of energy: Whale oil was extracted from dead animals, and was used especially as fuel for lamps, but could also be found in heating, soap, paint and other products. Countless numbers of whales were killed for this reason.

Whale blubber was used as a source of energy till the invention of kerosene.

Enter Abraham Gesner, a Canadian physician and geologist. In 1849, Gesner developed kerosene, a liquid made from coal, bitumen (a form of petrol) and oil shale. Unlike whale oil, kerosene was not smelly or dirty, it did not spoil, and, most importantly, it was cheaper to produce than whale oil.

As kerosene distilleries popped up everywhere and kerosene was commercialized, the demand for whale oil tanked. The whaling industry could get by for a while on the sales of whalebone, which was used for corsets and other garments. However, whalebone was soon replaced by other materials, and, in the end, whaling just wasn’t interesting anymore.

Abraham Gesner obviously hadn’t been trying to ban whaling. As far as we know, there were no moral factors in play for him. Yet, the result was there: the last American whaler left port in 1924 and grounded the next day.

The fact that whale oil was no longer a good source of energy obviously made it much easier to install the ban on commercial whaling in 1986. When the environmental movement is successful in ending whaling in the last remaining countries, it will not just be because of moral arguments, but because the relevance of whaling has diminished, thanks to good alternatives.

Moral advocacy is important, but it’s not enough. Meat alternatives, including clean meat, will be as important for the end of animal agriculture as kerosene was for the end of commercial whaling.

Based on the article How Capitalism saved the whales.