Vegetarianism and the Restaurant Business

By Ezra Klein

This post is all anecdata. Not a hard stat in it. So take it with a grain of delicious, delicious, salt. A year or so ago, I stopped eating meat at lunchtime. This didn’t entirely change my lunch habits (Au Bon Pain’s caprese sandwich is pretty good). But it did lead me to seek out places with more than one non-meat option on the menu. As you’d expect, Java Green, the vegan spot on 19th, came into heavier rotation. So too did the juice joint on Vermont, and its neighbor, Spice Express. Neither place is vegetarian. But a majority of their offerings are.

And all these places — every one — is packed. Way more packed than most of the spots with meat and cheese on bread. That may be because there are fewer of them. Or it may be a Jackie Robinson effect (where you have to be better to survive as a vegetarian restaurant). Or it may be because people like lighter lunches. But it does seem there’s some demand for this sort of things. Yet veg-friendly restaurants are incredibly rare. The question is why?

Conversely, I don’t know of any similar effect among dinner-spots. Even places that focus on fresh vegetables and would seem to be vegetarian-friendly naturally — places like Firefly or Cashions or Tabard Inn — seem to make it a point to avoid having more than one entree without meat. Nor do I know of conspicuous vegetarian-friendly success stories along the lines of Java Green. But you’d think there would be some! After all, a place that was good for carnivores and better-than-average for their vegetarian-partners would end up being the default choice for such couples.  The market of straight vegetarians may not be that large. But the market of people who’d like to eat light, or who have a vegetarian in their dinner party, is probably pretty big.

So here’s are questions, such as I have them (this is really more of a rsamble than anything). Is the imbalance the product of market failure, in much the same way that DC turned out to want a lot more tart yogurt with fresh fruit toppings than was being provided three years ago? Or is it just not profitable to run a dinner joint with more than two vegetarian offerings? And why, if the lunch places with a vegetarian emphasis do so well, don’t we see more of them?

19 responses to “Vegetarianism and the Restaurant Business

  1. Excellent post… I’ve never understood the paucity of vegetarian/vegan options in many major cities either. It can be especially stark from a vegan perspective… while I’m a omnivore, my girlfriend(now experimenting with cheese!) was a vegan until recently and so I’ve taken quite a note of the lack of options even in the Communist Boston.

    However, I actually, think quality in the few places that offer a multitude of veggie selections is lower because of a captive audience. Obviously there are some super awesome veggie places, but I think by and large you can get away with murder because your clientèle has so few other options when dining out.

    I think this is mainly do to vegetarian cooking in the United States being fairly new… it’s leaps and bounds better than it was 18 years ago when my girlfriend first stopped eating meat, but it still has a long way to go. I think this is evidenced by the fact that for the most part the best vegetarian restaurants are ethnic ones, like Indian or Thai, that have been cooking meatless dishes for ages.

    We might need another generation of Americans growing up with the idea that every meal doesn’t have to have meat in it before it really shows up in the marketplace. Is there anybody on, say, the Food Network who is cooking vegetarian regularly? What about the curriculum of the CIA, for example? How much exposure do our aspiring chefs get to it? I think a large part of it is really that not many people know how to cook vegetables other than in side dishes.

  2. Sorry to go off topic, but when I was in the US (I’m Australian) I found Au Bon Pain quite horrible. Faux-food, a simulacrum of a real cafe.

    It was also in Au Bon Pain in DC that I overheard a conversation between two exceedingly privileged young men discussing their Ambassador fathers, and felt smaller than I ever have before.

  3. cityzen’s vegetarian menu is amazing, granted, not in the price range workday lunch for some of us. I’m bringing it up because a couple of years ago, ziebold wasn’t happy with his veg menu options and he thought they were being overlooked. so he had his entire staff go vegetarian for the month of july. he talked about how much they bitched– and how hungry they were. (: for staff meals, a different line cook makes dinner each night. I thought it was a clever way to make veg. more interesting and satiating.

  4. I’d ping a few chefs and ask. Menus are driven by so many variables. Not just what sells, but what drives profit. One menu item might not make money but just to draw in a customer. That customer might bring a guest that orders the pasta that costs 30 cents to make but brings in 12 bucks.

    How expensive are veg dishes to make? How hard is it to keep those ingredients in stock. how easy is it to assure they’re available in the right quantities. How well do they sell when there’s always an AWESOME roast chicken three lines up on the menu?

    I want a full investigative report.

    And also another IFA happy hour, since I blew it for the first.

  5. I can’t imagine that vegetarian options aren’t profitable. Any restaurateur will tell you that the most expensive item is the meat (and fish). That’s why they have to make up for it by often charging more on smaller items like drinks & dessert. But with vegetarian food, the ingredients cost less, and you still get to charge the same price!

    It really is shocking how few places offer vegan and vegetarian options. Outside of chinese/thai/vietnamese places, you’re pretty much screwed.

  6. moderndomestic

    I would be interested to see what chefs/restaurateurs have to say as well – I would bet it has to be a combination of cost/profit and possibly just not thinking about it.

  7. I think it has to do with the fact that vegetarian food is limited, and that chefs looking for their restaurants to be an expression of their culinary point of view will not want to be limited by such parameters (and of course, vegan food is even more so). Even if you take away hard proteins, things like chicken stock are an important way to add flavor to dishes. As for why chefs in omnivorous restaurants don’t have more vegetarian dishes, it’s likely because much of culinary training teaches you to center dishes around a focal ingredient, which is harder to do with non-protein elements.

    On the flipside, the people who open vegetarian restaurants tend to do it for more ideological reasons. They don’t usually hire real chefs to cook their food, resorting instead to veggie cooks they might have known beforehand. The result is the same old tofu-with-veg mushes most veggie spots tend to serve. In addition, I think that vegetarians (and especially vegans) who have shunned meat for years may have lost elements of their palate with makes meat-like flavors appetizing (meat, especially beef, has a high glutamate content).

    However, there is a slowly rising movement of fine dining chefs making vegetable-centric dishes (without calling them vegetarian, which is not a cuisine or a culinary term) that vegetarians can enjoy. For example, Ubuntu, in Napa, CA, has garnered national attention with it’s vegetable based fine dining cuisine. I’ve eaten there several times, and it’s pretty clear what they have that most veggie restaurants don’t: a classically-trained, meat-eating chef, with a developed palate and an open mind. Similarly, though they do not adhere to a strict vegetarian point of view, the restaurants Coi and Manresa, both in the Bay Area, make it a point to have vegetables play an equally important part on their menu as proteins do. Read this article by Coi’s chef and owner, Daniel Patterson, probably the country’s most intellectual chef: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/6b9bd7bc-56dd-11de-9a1c-00144feabdc0.html .

    As a trained chef, I’m only concerned with the food on my plate and how it tastes. Secondary to that is where it came from/how it was grown or raised. I try and eat little meat and fish, and when I do, it’s in very small portions. My main reason for that is that most meat and fish available for purchase in this country either tastes terrible, or is way too expensive for someone like me. The environmental reasons also come into play. Luckily, I’ve become skilled at turning vegetarian dishes into something better than the salads and sloppy dishes of the average vegetarian restaurants. Once people start being able to cook better at home, I think they will realize that less meat means cheaper food that can taste just as good.

    In addition, profits have nothing to do with it. As another commenter pointed out, meat sells at a much smaller profit margin than other food.

    Stop letting hippies cook your vegetarian food!

  8. Vegitate.

  9. It’s interesting to me that low-budg Asian and Middle Eastern places, however generally shitty, nearly ALWAYS offer extensive veggie options — and that these are almost always the safest/tastiest bet when the place sucks. Is it just that cooking these types of cuisine requires a facility with soy and chickpeas? Or is it sort of a market-expectations thing — at a hole-in-the wall Szechuan place, we just take for granted that there will be Ma Po Tofu, while we might not assume that you can get a veggie burger at Tabard, or whatever? But I think “stop letting hippies cook your vegetarian food” is hands-down the best statement on the matter in this post. Sorry hippies.

    ADDENDUM: Like Matt C. I am terribly sorry to veer off the topic, which is an interesting one, but while I am fascinated by these discussions of restaurant economics and the “captive audience” of vegetarian diners, I have as far as I’m aware no useful insight to contribute, whereas I can perhaps be useful by discussing a major flaw in this post, thereby maybe preventing future tragedy for my fellow IFA-watchers: this post made me so hungry for caprese and “oh hey,” I said to myself, “if Ezra Klein says the ones at Au Bon Pain are good, he must be correct,” so I did, merrily tripping off to ABP, sunny with anticipation, and it was so gross, just — greasy pesto and flabby flavorless mozzarella substance on week-old bread, just so terrible, but I kept eating it anyway because I trust the IFA that much, that your stated opinion that it was decent actually overrode the observable truth that it was gross, also I kept eating it because I was so hungry, what is it like 3:30, that is too late for lunch, anyway my point is now I feel bloated and vile. Thanks for nothing, Mr. Food Guy. Suddenly I am not sure I should believe you on the Healthy Americans Act either.

  10. This is why you shouldn’t trust the IFA. Bunch of amateurs with absolutely no clue.

  11. This is a strange post on many levels. First, while I don’t know DC’s Au Bon Ouch, I know others and would never recommend them for anything. I think somebody has been in a hurry when eating lately. Second, I know you have good Ethiopian and OK Indian in DC. Both have good veg options for dinner. Lastly, at least on the west coast (PDX, SF, LA) most good restaurants have multiple veggie meals on the menu for dinner. Is DC so different or are you sure that you are frequenting the right places?

  12. When evaluating DC lunch options, you really have to understand that you’re evaluating them in comparison with *other DC lunch options*. And sorry kids, but ABP’s sandwich is a lot better than Jack’s.

  13. Pingback: Taste T.O. - Food & Drink In Toronto » Food For Thought - Thursday, June 25th

  14. I find that ethnic joints are about the only place in this town to get decent vegetarian food. So many places will provide a vegetarian option, but it’s either pasta or salad (acceptable at an Italian joint, but not really anywhere else) or the omnipresent portobello sandwich. It’s easy to be creative with vegetarian meals without being that damn boring. Perhaps if chefs put the same level of careful thought into planning their veggie dishes as they do their meat ones, they might attract some more vegetarians who would patronize their restaurants out of their own volition, and not just when a friend drags them.

  15. As a vegan (raw food) chef, i have to say that i find the assertion that vegan/vegetarian food is limited rather absurd. I think that vegan cuisine simply requires a different perspective and promotes a higher level of creativity in order to think outside of the normal meat based paradigm. I think where vegan/veg food can fall short is when those preparing it simply try to imitate non veg food (i.e. all the fake meats and soy products).
    The possibilities of what can be done with fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and a handful of other ingredients is really awe inspiring. if you haven’t already, i encourage you to check out some of the gourmet raw restaurants in new york (sadly, DC does not have one), including Quintessence and Pure Food and Wine. or if you make it to San Fran – Cafe Gratitude is a must.

    i think the lack of good vegan/veg food in DC, as well as the rest of america, simply is a testament to how stuck people are to old habits – both the consumers and the producers. much of the clientele are unexcited by vegetable based food as they most likely have not had a well prepared dish before (thus ending the meal feeling unsatisfied or unimpressed). And most of the chefs and restaurant owners out there see vegetarian food as so foreign – or perhaps so “limited” – they rarely make a true effort to perfect it.

    and thus we have a cycle that sort of stagnates. however i do see a real trend happening with a shift world wide towards a healthier and more sustainable way of eating and as a result i think we will see far more gourmet vegetarian options popping up (even in DC) that will impress the veg and non veg eaters alike.

  16. Mark’s kitchen in Takoma Park.

  17. Somebody already mentioned it above, but Vegitate in Shaw is excellent. Tiny place, random location, beer selection isn’t great but the food is excellent.

  18. To my knowledge, there are roughly zero vegetarian culinary schools. Maybe this relates to why there are so few trained vegetarian chefs and so few decent vegetarian restaurants?

  19. As a vegetarian, I’ve noticed the same thing in DC, and the number of decent veggie lunch options near my office is slim as well. But I’m especially surprised that so many of the more upscale DC restaurants that really focus on sustainable, local food – you know, the ones that get all their meat from local farms – still don’t have decent vegetarian options on the menu. I was excited when I read about Founding Farmers opening last year, until I read the menu and it was all meat, all the time. Vegetate (which I love) is the only place that comes to mind that’s good for a nice, vegetarian dinner out.

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