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?