What happens when a successful restaurant with lines of eager customers outside the door virtually every evening decides to risk the entire business by taking meat, dairy, eggs and other animal products off the menu?
This was the scenario facing Marco Matino, owner of Gigi pizzeria, in Sydney, Australia, in early 2015. After he and his family became aware of the cruelty, environmental devastation and negative health impacts of animal agriculture, they knew they had to make a radical change to their then 10-year-old popular Italian pizza restaurant – one of just a handful in the country that’s a member of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association). Matino spent the next six months perfecting plant-based alternatives to the traditional Neapolitan woodfired pizzas before relaunching the business in October that year as a fully vegan eatery.
Reactions to this about-turn were mixed. Some people were incensed and threatened to boycott the restaurant, while others celebrated the news. The Matino family waited to see if their business would survive.
Just over two and a half years later, lines still form outside Gigi’s most nights. Sales are up by 27%, food costs are down 10% and the company’s social media following has increased by 500%. A Gigi pizzeria concept has just opened on the Gold Coast in Queensland and further expansion is “just around the corner”, according to Matino.
This is one of several success stories from an informal survey of business owners who turned their regular eateries vegan, compiled last month by Kiki Adami, founder of specialist hospitality consulting firm Veganizer in New York. Out of 22 restaurants located in the US, UK and Australia that made the switch to 100% plant-based offerings, contacted by Adami and her team, 17 responded. All reported increased sales of between 10% and 1,000%. Food costs were varied, with some going up, others going down and the rest remaining the same. Meanwhile social media followings for the veganized restaurants increased between 100% and 15,000%.
Nick’s Kitchen, a Filipino restaurant in Daly City, California, for example, which turned vegan just seven months ago, saw a 1000% increase in gross sales, against a 433% increase in food costs. “We were struggling serving meat to people because it went against our beliefs,” says co-owner Reina Montenegro. “We were just going to close down. Instead we switched to plant-based. It was a leap of faith business-wise. But we exploded when we switched, from making only $200 a day to $2,000 a day.”
Over in the UK, Ali Sheikh closed his kebab shop in the northern English town of Manchester and re-opened it in January 2017 as Little Aladdin, serving affordable Indian vegan fast food. Gross sales increased 50%, food costs decreased 50%, and Sheikh is already considering a second location. “It changed my life,” he says. “I didn’t have Facebook or Instagram. Now, the young people tag me on social media and my posts get hundreds of likes. We’re now getting lots of regulars. We keep our prices fair because vegan food shouldn’t be more expensive.”
The Fields Beneath, a café in north London, England, which put a notice in its window explaining to customers why it would no longer serve dairy milk for coffee due to the abhorrent cruelty to cows, saw its social media following leap from 700 to 7,000 Instagram followers in the space of just one month. It’s also maintained a gross profit of 68% after turning vegan in March 2017.
New York restaurateur Ravi DeRossi grabbed headlines in late 2015 after announcing he planned to turn all 15 of his bars and eateries in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn vegan. He started with Mother of Pearl, a popular tiki bar and Polynesian restaurant that had been open for six months. Food sales doubled immediately after the menu became plant-based in February 2016, while food costs almost halved, and these figures have stayed consistent to date. “Most people were coming to Mother of Pearl later in the evening to drink,” says DeRossi. “Once we converted to vegan, we started to get a dinner rush every night, which was totally unexpected, and we haven’t slowed down.” DeRossi then transitioned his Cuban bar Cienfuegos from a sea-food-heavy menu to a plant-based one a year after Mother of Pearl. Sales went up 50% and again food costs dropped because “vegetables are less expensive than seafood”. DeRossi also closed his popular fondue restaurant Bourgeois Pig in June and reopened it as a vegan tapas bar called Ladybird. He’s taken meat off the menus at all but three of his other venues, and has several new plant-based projects in the pipeline.
While ethical concerns for animal welfare were behind many of the restaurateurs’ decision to move to a plant-based menu, some of them were motivated by health reasons. Lily and Aurelio Arias got rid of animal products from their Mexican eatery El Palote Panaderia in Dallas, Texas, in August 2016 because Aurelio had suffered a heart attack several years ago and his health declined. After switching to a completely plant-based diet, he felt much better and wanted to share the health benefits with customers. Sales at the restaurant and bakery went up 371%, food costs went down 3%, and the company’s Facebook followers jumped from 100 to 15,000.
Soul Burger in Sydney, Australia, which is run by medical doctor Amit Tewari, turned its first eatery in the city’s inner-east completely plant-based in December 2015. Since then Tewari has opened three more outlets in locations across Sydney, as well as a food truck. Sales have risen 347%, food costs have decreased 3% and the company is currently in negotiations with Australia’s largest food distributor to increase plant-based options at lower margins. “We want to reduce the costs of vegan food and make it more accessible to the broader population,” says Tewari.
Of course, this data needs to be placed in context. Two and a half years is not a huge amount of time and some of the eateries turned vegan even more recently. Several of them are also located in inner cities where the population of vegans tends to be higher, although many of the restaurants are frequented predominantly by a non-vegan clientele.
And not all restaurants have made the transition to vegan successfully. La Blue Casa, a Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Texas, closed down in early 2016 shortly after announcing it was changing the menu after the owners watched the environmental documentary Cowspiracy.
Even Veganizer’s Adami came up against insurmountable challenges when she proclaimed to the media that Gust Organics, the restaurant she was managing in late 2014, was shifting to a plant-based menu. The New York eatery was popular with paleo customers who didn’t take kindly to the moveand peppered the restaurant’s Yelp page with negative reviews. Despite a loss in profits for the first six months, Gust Organics turned a corner and according to Adami “started to make more money than we had in five years”. Nevertheless, investors were unhappy with the change of direction and closed the restaurant.
“I would’ve done so much differently,” admits Adami. “I would’ve been quiet about the transition. No restaurant had pulled this kind of stunt before, so there was no proof of concept that it would be a success. I was too emotional about the transition and wanted it to happen overnight, which was not a good idea. My passion got in the way of my business sense. Also, at the time, I was a raw foodist and I not only wanted Gust to be vegan, but I wanted it to be mostly raw. That was a big mistake. We were already turning the wheel 180, going raw was too much. I quickly realized this and our final menu, which was very successful, had items like seitan scallopini, raviolis and burgers. People want foods that they recognize.”
What to take into account when considering turning your restaurant vegan
According to Adami, the biggest question a restaurateur needs to answer is how the transition to plant-based will affect their identity. “Are you keeping the same menu but substituting the animal products? Or are you revamping your entire identity? Concepts like Epif in Portland simply found the plant-based versions of their animal products and did what I call ‘replacement therapy’. Either way, food always comes first,” says Adami.
Another thing to consider is what makes you different. While being the first vegan or veganized eatery in your area may have worked in the past, it’s no longer enough to be just a generic vegan restaurant. “Vegan food is everywhere now in major cities, so what makes you stand out is choosing an interesting cuisine,” says Adami, who works with restaurant owners to veganize their menus and is planning to open New York’s first plant-based food hall and eco-social club for entrepreneurs next year.
In terms of communicating the change to your customers, Adami advises caution and a gentle approach. “Avoid the preaching,” she warns. “Always approach your current clientele with a sense of appreciation and empathy. If you’re simply replacing items and keeping the same menu, then don’t even make a big deal about it. Simply redo the menu with subtle hints. Don’t create a new menu with the word ‘vegan’ on it. Instead, try to come up with creative but honest dish descriptions. Let’s say you have a classic burger that you veganized. The old description was ‘Classic Burger: Our spicy patty topped with mayo, ginger ketchup and pickles.’ Keep this exact description for your veganized version. No one’s going to get defensive over this new description. People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouth, which means they read the menu and analyze whether or not it will taste good. After they put in their order, however, you’d better deliver a meal that looks and tastes amazing.”
For those eateries that have partners or investors, conveying the business advantage is paramount. With new research coming out almost weekly about the rise in vegan living and plant-based eating, it’s wise to dazzle your stakeholders with figures and data. When DeRossi announced to the media that he was turning all 15 of his venues vegan, he didn’t tell his partners. “They started getting bigger checks, so they had nothing to complain about,” he says.
Be sure to also train your staff to communicate the change to customers effectively. “I made a mistake with this at Gust Organics,” says Adami. “One day I heard a man ask my server, ‘Is it true you don’t serve meat anymore?’ to which my server replied, ‘Unfortunately, sir, we do not.’ The proper response should have been, ‘Actually sir, we had a celebrity chef come in and enhance our menu. Most of the items are still here, just altered to be better. We also added a bunch of organic items.’ This is a totally different approach – it’s all positive, with bait to try the ‘newly enhanced’ dishes.”
Chains versus standalone restaurants
If you own a chain of eateries and plan to turn them vegan, there are special considerations. “The major difference between a standalone and a chain is systems and regulations,” explains Adami. “All locations must be consistent, so defining recipes, food preparation, order items, line setup, distributor orders, shelf life, yield, line temperatures, and training each location to be completely in line with the new production method is essential. Chains are much more rigid – there’s a way to make the food and you don’t deviate. This means more organized preparation and getting really clear on recipes, along with hosting intense personnel trainings prior to launching anything.”
A chain may do better to keep its branding and focus on finding the vegan replacements that best match the current menu, says Adami. “If a chain currently serves shredded chicken, find a vegan replacement that’s shredded, not crumbled. Details like this will enable a chain to keep their old clientele while bringing on new customers.”
What to do if your restaurant is located in areas where animal agriculture is prevalent
Veganizing a restaurant in major metropolitan cities such as London, Los Angeles or New York can be easier in terms of buy-in from locals, as well as visitors. Shouting your ethics from the rooftops – or store windows in the case of The Fields Beneath – can result in a hike in sales and a horde of new fans of your business. But what if your restaurant is located in an area where animal agriculture is prevalent?
Tenille Evans faced this dilemma when she announced to her family that she wanted to turn their restaurant Secret Creek Café vegan in January 2016. Secret Creek is located inside a wildlife sanctuary in Lithgow, a rural mining town in the Blue Mountains area of New South Wales in Australia that’s also home to the beef and dairy industries.
One of the key challenges Evans faced was the locals’ preconceived ideas of what a vegan is and their perception of veganism as a threat to their farming culture. She even faced the prospect of a local tour company that markets to the retired elderly cancelling their regular bookings to the restaurant. “They called and said their guests wouldn’t like vegan food,” says Evans. “I replied with the reasons for our change, about how this brings us more in line with the environmental ethics that we promote through the conservation work that we do, and that eating with us is a unique experience for their guests. They decided to keep their booking and the feedback was so good that they continue to book with us. They appreciate that our food is better now for guests with allergies, so it’s even easier to cater for a large group.”
The switch to a plant-based menu offering vegan versions of recognizable comfort dishes resulted in the business increasing sales by 153% while bringing food costs down by 58%. Around 30% of turnover is from weddings and the company is set to increase that figure with the amount of bookings it already has for 2018 and 2019. Evans secures the weddings by offering complimentary food tastings to skeptical guests. “I have a 100% success rate with this,” she says. “Every single person who’s tried the food first no longer has a problem with it.”
Evans advises eateries in areas where people’s livelihood depends on animal agriculture to avoid framing their transition to plant-based in terms of animal rights and ethics. Instead she recommends focusing on the many other positive aspects of veganism, such as environmental and health benefits.
She also agrees with Adami that training your employees in what to say to customers is essential. “Your staff should be able to recommend the right dishes to reluctant guests and help them through the ordering process. We still get people just dropping in who don’t know that our food is vegan until they read the menu. My staff are trained to allay their fears and to tell them they don’t have to pay if they don’t enjoy it. Everyone always pays!”
The full database of restaurants that went vegan and the survey results are available on the Veganizer website.
First published on Forbes