Our Director Laura Hurst on why the restaurant industry is getting it wrong for the majority of meat-free customers
So, Vegans are making me really cross. It’s only now that we’re a few of weeks clear of Veganuary that I have calmed down enough to think about why I spent most of the first part of the year venting that (and I quote myself) “vegans are ruining it for everyone.”
I recognise that this is a slightly inflammatory position to take given the mounting evidence that a plant-based diet isn’t just a better option for people, but for the planet as well. So let me explain myself.
I’ve been vegetarian (lacto-ovo) for almost as long as I can remember. Longer than most of my colleagues have been alive. And while I became vegetarian for noble reasons to do with wanting to rid the world of animal cruelty, my reasons for staying vegetarian have changed over time – health, habit, and more recently sustainability.
What hasn’t changed during that time is how bloody difficult it can be. Northern Ireland in the early 90s was a woeful place to be a vegetarian – standard fare was potatoes and cheese if eating anywhere other than home. The late 90s saw the arrival of spinach and ricotta cannelloni on most menus, a staple which served me well for at least a decade in the UK. Overseas, presented different challenges. I’ll never forget a meal in a Parisian restaurant where there was nothing vegetarian on the menu (imagine this conversation in passable French)…
Me: “I’m vegetarian, I don’t eat any meat or fish. Is there any chance you could prepare me something I can eat, an omelette perhaps?”
Waiter: “Of course, how about a cheese omelette?”
Me: “Perfect, thank you.”
Image: BBC good food
Compared to two decades of similar experiences, the last five years have been a dream as chefs have branched out from the obligatory pasta and started to get creative with vegetarian fare (goodbye vegetarian lasagne, hello brave new world of cheese soufflé, asparagus tart, kadai paneer). But then came the rise of veganism and with it came not an exciting set of additional dishes to choose from, but instead the frequent disappearance of dishes containing dairy (it’s cheese I’m most cross about, proper melty cheese), substituted by what can only really be described as disappointing variants on weird, processed, fake-meat burgers and cauliflower.
My biggest gripe with this isn’t catering for vegans, it’s the assumption that veganism is a substitute for vegetarianism and the belief that as long as you have one vegan dish on the menu, everyone will be happy. And that’s just not the case. You only need to scratch the surface to see that the biggest rise in plant-based consumption isn’t coming from vegetarians / vegans, it’s coming from meat eaters who are choosing a more flexible approach to eating that supports better health for bodies and the environment.
92% of plant-based meals consumed in the UK in 2018 were eaten by non-vegans (source: Kantar Worldpanel). Only 1.16% of the British population are vegan (source: Ipsos Mori, 2019).
If those are the facts, why is it the vegetarian option that is being swapped to vegan on the menu? Why does the number of meat options remain the same, when it’s the meat eaters who represent the biggest number of switchers to plant-based meals? I think it comes down to belief and inside-out perspectives.
The restaurant industry is defaulting to a belief that has held true for years – the majority of people eat meat and the vegetarian option is for a small but stable majority. Putting veganism in the same box is the easy option – if fits with the existing view of the world and means that nothing really needs to change.
The alternative, outside-in view that meat-free choices aren’t being made by the few but by the carnivorous many presents an inconvenient truth. It requires a complete re-think on how menus are designed and that’s challenging to any organisation because there are implications on revenue and profit models, supply chain and inventory. And so it’s safer in the short-term to stick with what’s known and stick veganism in the same category as vegetarianism.
In the long-term though that’s not sustainable. By failing to face up to the inconvenient truth that most plant-based meals are being consumed by meat-eaters, businesses lose sight of what it is that is driving the change and so in the long-term lose their ability to attract and retain customers.
So what’s the answer?
For most business it’s connecting, really connecting, with the customer need – a variety of healthy, more sustainable meals that don’t feel like a compromise for the meat-eating majority. In doing that, they might spot that the solution isn’t necessarily the market response that we’ve seen so far, and that perhaps locally-grown, in-season, non-vegan meals fit those needs. And then maybe, just maybe, we’ll see that sometimes the solution is cheese.