The rise of the stealth vegan business

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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!

15 thoughts on “The rise of the stealth vegan business

  1. Interesting and encouraging. Had already spotted the trend with vegan chocolate like Pana and Conscious which have RAW, ORGANIC and HANDMADE prominently on their bars, but no mention of vegan. Though they are – and v delicious:-)

  2. There is a little place in London called Bodega 50 which does this. It’s full of totally different people who just go there for the great food which so happens to be vegan.

  3. This is really interesting, and I’ve seen the very same thing happen on an extremely small scale in my own office. Last week I baked some vegan cookies & brownies for a company charity bake sale held at our main office. I typed out labels for the goodies, indicating they were vegan. A few bits were taken, but about 75% came back with me.

    The next day I took the leftovers into my regular office, where I work with people who weren’t at the main office the day before. I didn’t put labels on them.. and by the end of the day all the cookies and brownies had disappeared and were very much appreciated by my co-workers.

    Even after they found out they were vegan, they kept eating them – because they’d already tried them and enjoyed them. But at least one co-worker told me she wouldn’t have taken a brownie if they’d been labelled vegan.

  4. First of all: very interesting idea and great post!
    But the photo from Lord of the Fries makes me wonder: are they actively deceiving their customers? It says “Chik’n”, “Parma” and “Hot Dogs” in the menu, as well as “Phish”. (Though I am not able to read what it says below that) So people buy them thinking they are chicken and fish? If so, don’t they fear any negative reactions?

    1. If these sorts of restaurants ever become more popular than a small niche….I imagine they make start to have some issues with the labeling. All it would take is one big law suit from someone that had a very bad allergic reaction to their food item…..also industry will start to push back on the labeling (they already are).

      I’m not a big fan of what vegans are doing with food labeling… labels should be nutrition-based so they can properly guide dietary behavior. For example “milk” should be a liquid that is high in protein, calcium, etc…..rather than just something white that you may use like “milk”.

      1. Businesses are legally obligated to list ingredients that people might be allergic to, so I don’t see how that is a problem.

        1. I’m not sure how it works around the world…but in the US the food and allergen labeling act only applies to food manufactures. Restaurants aren’t required to post allergen information on their menus and they aren’t even required to have nutritional facts unless they have numerous locations.

          In any case….industry is already pushing back and may win if the other side doesn’t address their arguments, for example here is a recent effort by the dairy industry:

          Nutrition-based labeling handles the primary obligations while still allowing for non-dairy milks…….I think its better for the public as well.

  5. I also don’t think any business like this would lose vegan customers, I mean, surely most vegans don’t only eat at vegan places, right? Or is this just what I want to believe ? as a vegan, I never go out of my way to eat at a vegan/vegetarian restaurant, unless I am curious or I really like the place, I always say that I can find something to eat everywhere, and until now it has been true. I think this shows other people that you can easily be vegan, otherwise they will get the impression that, if they went vegan, they could only eat in a couple of restaurants. I do dream of having my own vegan restaurant/café, or something of this kind, and I would not advertise it as vegan either!

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