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An Open Letter to Your Local Cafe: Cater to Vegans

I’m fed up.  I’m normally very positive when it comes to food, and coffee.  My diet is the (vegan) opposite of James’ porridge-and-apricots hike: Varied, spicy, and (too often) pricey fare.   On the weekend, I often relax by visiting a cafe with a friend or a novel.  When I need to plan my time in a busy patch, an espresso and my diary is the go.

And I think that it is easy to make, and to buy, varied and enjoyable vegan food in Auckland (and in Hamilton, Wellington, and Christchurch, if not elsewhere in New Zealand).  There are a lot of vegan options in cafes and restaurants.  Sure, it’s not New York and it’s not Melbourne (If anyone reading this wants to open a Lord of the Fries franchise in Auckland: I and my friends will keep you in business.  Not joking.), but it’s not bad.

Cafes, however?  I’m going to be honest.  Most of the time, they don’t capitalise on the vegan market well enough.  That’s not good for veganism, not good for vegans, and not good for cafe owners.

I started thinking about this post on a Sunday morning.  By my sixth – or possibly eighth – shot of coffee in the third cafe at 3:00 that afternoon, it sounded brilliant.  The first cafe, Shaky Isles in Kingsland, served me good coffee, and a small but tasty breakfast. The second, Revel on K Rd, is my regular, barely a block from my apartment.  The third, Alleluia, is closer still, but doesn’t have any vegan items on the menu. But, after my coffee at Revel, I ordered something that Alleluia made another vegan friend: a hash brown sandwich, no bacon, avocado instead.  After charging me a kidney, they gave me a takeaway container with two (small) hasbrowns and a side salad – with obviously non-vegan dressing.  Revel, I go to thrice a day, sometimes.  Alleluia, I’ve been to three times since moving to the CBD.

Oh, and that afternoon: The rest of my friends, about five of them, went to Revel.  Because it catered better to the one of them who was vegan – and one who wasn’t wanted their vegan chocolate cake.

So, this is a small plea.  Cafes, please, cater to vegans.  It’ll be better for us, and it’ll be better for you.

Feel free to distribute and repost the below.  Please do print it and deliver it to your local cafe, with your name and signature.  Just, please, leave the link to this blog at the bottom.

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Dear Madam/Sir,

I am a vegan, which means that I do not consume animal products.  It is not a complicated diet to cater for: No meat, no eggs, no dairy, no honey, no gelatin, no other animal products.  Although it necessitates a bit of ingredient-reading, I don’t find it at all hard.  But, I’d really like it if cafes catered to vegans like me a bit better.

And I really think it’d be a good thing for your business as a cafe, if you did.  Here’s why.

Why Cater to Vegans?
You’ll get more Customers and Make More Money.
Vegans don’t buy non-vegan food.  If you cater to vegans, vegans will buy food from you.  So you’ll make money from them.  And, as I’m going to explain, you’ll be able to cut costs and charge more for the vegan food – so you’ll make even more.  And we’ll bring in more non-vegans too.  So you’ll sell more vegan and non-vegan food.

Vegan Food is Easy to Make
You probably have all the ingredients to make a vegan breakfast in your kitchen already.  And I’ve done the cafe work thing, so I have a decent idea what cafes have in their kitchens.  Do you serve toast, or hash-browns?  That’s a good start.  Check the ingredients for dairy and beef tallow, and if you’re clear, there’s the base.  Fry some mushrooms – in oil, not butter, steam some spinach, fry some tomato, and call it the Hash Stack (VG).  Add some tomato salsa on the side, if you’re feeling generous.  With a toaster, a frying pan, and ingredients that your cafe probably already buys regularly, you can make a vegan breakfast.

Of course, you can branch out.  New Zealanders like baked beans, so why not make your own?  If you don’t already serve home-made hash-browns in one of your omnivorous breakfasts, vegans are an excuse.  And the omnivores will get better breakfasts out of it too.  Scrambled tofu is common (and delicious), but you might have to buy some tofu.  Porridge, vegan or not, less so.

Lunch might be a little harder.  You could just stick with the breakfast option and call it an Award Winning All Day Breakfast.  Or if you bought some tofu to scramble you could just marinate it, put it between two slices of bread, with salad: the Tofu Burger (VG).  Or you could do a toasted panini with no cheese, toasted with dairy-free margarine, vegetable oil, or Olivani.  When winter rears its ugly head, there’s no reason why pumpkin or tomato soups should be non-vegan.

If you already have a salad bar, the odds are good that you already cater to vegans.  If not, the solution is simple: Make a salad, without butter, or chicken, or feta.  It’s honestly not hard.  You could even put chickpeas in it.

The last point and the most alien to non-vegans: Vegan baking.  Believe it or not, it’s easy (and omnivores won’t notice the difference).  You already serve soy-milk with coffee, right?  And you have cider vinegar for your salad dressing, and canola oil for your…most things, yes?  Then you can bake a vegan cake.  The soy and oil replace the milk and butter and fats, and a dessert spoonful of cider vinegar will react with the oil to become a better binding agent than eggs.

Vegan Food is Cheaper to Make (and Vegans will Pay Extra)
If you do serve soy-milk with coffee (which you do, right?), I would wager good money that you charge $0.50 (or even a whole dollar!) more for it.  And vegans buy it.  Now, lets not mess around here: Soy milk doesn’t cost much more than milk.  It doesn’t cost $0.50 more for the little dollop you put in my flat white.  But I’ll still pay it.  90% of vegans will; 5% only drink black coffee; and 5% are boring decaf people who don’t go to cafes anyway.  So, coffee for coffee, cup for cup, you make more money off my soy double flat white than my mum’s full-milk flattie.

Let’s look at the examples of food I suggest above.  That hash stack?  Let’s be honest: It’s a lot cheaper to make that than it is to add rashers of bacon, and eggs, and hollandaise sauce, and, and, and…if you charge $15 for the bacon option, vegans will pay $17 for the no-bacon option.  It’s true!  We’ll pay you more for less.  If you serve a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, you can make an avocado, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, and vegetarians and vegans will pay more for it!  I’ve seen them do it.  Hey, I’ve done it.  What more could you want?

Being honest, vegans don’t have too many options at cafes.  So we pay for what we can eat.  Plus, I’m not lying when I say I have no idea how much my local cafe charges for bacon on eggs on steak on meat with milk sauce, because I don’t even look at that part of the menu.  So the chances are good that most vegans won’t notice that you’re charging them a premium!

It’s a win-win for you.

Let me summarise: Do you serve bagels?  Just offer the option of a bagel with avocado and no cream cheese (and charge the vegans the same amount, even though you’re not paying for the cream cheese, so giving them less than the omnivores get).  You can – probably – take items from meals you already serve, mix them up, and charge more for less.  Which, really, is the best business plan you could ask for, right?

Vegans are Easy to Please and Become Loyal Customers
This flows on from the last few points.  We don’t have three cafes in every block to go to.  If you serve decent vegan food, we’ll be ecstatic.  Because most of your competitors don’t.  And we’ll come back, and buy the food again, and again.  And if you serve drinkable coffee – and some of us will pay extra for fair trade too – we’ll come back for that even when we’re not buying food.

You see, even though your Hash Stack (VG) isn’t amazing, I’m going to be extremely happy just that you have a vegan item on the menu, saving me awkward conversations with my friends, and confusing attempts to order ‘yeah, um, the BLAT with no B please’.  So long as it’s decent, you’ll be away laughing.

Especially if you have good chilli sauce, in my case.

Vegans Have Friends
Here’s another secret from the lives of vegans: We have friends.  A lot of our friends are omnivores.  And we’re always the fussy eater in the group, so we get to choose which cafe we go to.  So by putting a vegan item on the menu, you don’t just get vegan customers.  You get vegans, and their non-vegan friends.

If I’m out for breakfast with four omnivores – which happens every couple of weekends – I get the right of veto.  So if you don’t serve vegan food, four omnivores and one vegan won’t come.  If you do, we just might.

Even though vegetarians and vegans are a small segment of the population, we’re not an isolated group, cut off from ‘normal’ people.  And so catering to vegans brings in more omnivores – because we bring them with us.

Vegetarians and Omnivores Eat Vegan Food Too
Some people occasionally like to eat a meal without meat.  If you put vegan items on the menu, people who aren’t vegans will eat them.  Vegetarians will, obviously.  And so will people with dairy allergies.  But people who normally eat meat but just don’t really feel like it today will too!

I know of two exclusively vegetarian cafes and salad bars in central Auckland.  Both have queues out the door at lunchtime.  Most of these customers aren’t vegetarians.

Vegetarian – and vegan – food is perceived as healthy and a lot of people enjoy eating healthy.  People don’t just want sauasage rolls and ham sandwiches – even if they eat sausages and ham!

You Won’t Lose Anything
No one has ever gone into a cafe, seen a single vegan item on the menu, been horribly offended, and left.  You won’t lose any of your current customers.  You won’t have to risk lots of money on retooling your kitchen and running massive advertising campaigns (We’ll advertise it by word of mouth: Trust me on that).

It’s a Growing Market
Seriously.  In ten years, all the cafes will be doing it.  Beat the rush.

So how can I Cater to Vegans?
Change Your Food
This is plain and simple: If I can’t get vegan food at your cafe, I won’t eat at your cafe.  So whip up some quick and simple vegan food items.  If you’re really keen to expand into the vegan market, then experiment with vegan baking and tofu and chickpeas.  We’ll reward you for it, by coming to your cafe.

Adding vegan options is not hard, is not expensive, and is going to get you customers.

Change Your Menu
If you start stocking vegan food – tell us!  Put ‘V’ beside the vegetarian items on your menu and ‘VG’ beside the vegan ones, and stick a little key down thebottom.  When you label cabinet and counter food, use the same symbols.  It’s a hassle to have to ask ‘hey, is this vegan?’, so tell us.  A local vegetarian cafe recently added vegan labels to their cabinet – and I’m going back this weekend to buy some cake.  I never bought it earlier because I didn’t think it was vegan.

Hey, let’s be honest: The odds are good that something on your menu is already vegan.  But if vegans don’t know it, vegans won’t buy it.  So tell us, please.

And if you’re not going to jump the whole way in and give us vegan items, but your chef can make vegan items, just put ‘Vegan options available’ on the bottom.  Simple.

Train Your Staff
Whether or not you put vegan food on the menu, please tell your staff what veganism is.  If we ask ‘Hey, is that vegan?’, it’s great if we can get a confident and correct answer (but it’s better if your menu tells us).  Nothing is worse than ‘Milk’s fine, right?  How about fish?’  It’s not a complicated concept.

Actually: Please, train your staff on basic dietary restrictions.  If your staff know the rudimentaries of vegetarianism (including, for example, that some cheese contains bits of cow stomach lining so isn’t vegetarian), gluten free diets, peanut-free diets, dairy-free diets, etc, then you’ll make a lot of people very happy – and they’ll come to your cafe more.

Grab a New Frying Pan
Before, I said you wouldn’t need to retool your kitchen to cater to vegans.  That’s true.  But, please, if you’re using nice, old, seasoned cast-iron pans to cook, clean one up, grab a separate one, buy a new one, whatever, and just use it for the vegan food.  Keep the vegan/vegetarian stuff and the animal fat in separate pans.  Otherwise, if your kitchen is anything like that at the cafes I’ve worked in, you’re probably already keeping vegetable-stuff and meat-stuff pretty segregated.

However, the more you quarantine the vegan stuff – and the gluten free stuff, and the nut free stuff, etc – the better.  But most of us won’t ask.

I drink copious amounts of coffee and eat ridiculous amounts of food.  There are few things I like more than relaxing in a cafe with food, short blacks, and company.  A lot of vegans are similar.  Your average cafe’s target market is the middle class: Veganism, to be honest, is a pretty middle class movement, so far.  We have disposable incomes, and we want to dispose of some of our income at your cafe.  Please make it easier for us to do that!  It’s not scary, hard, or weird.  It’s different, sure, but it won’t chase old customers away, and it will bring new customers in.

So, please: Cater to vegans.

Kind regards,

David Tong

About David Tong

Climate campaigner | Cyclist | Photographer | Vegan | Straight Edge || Views my own


6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Your Local Cafe: Cater to Vegans

  1. I just want to clarify that I am not saying it is good that veganism is largely an middle class movement, that cafes charge 50c extra for soy milk, or that vegans often pay more for less at cafes. All I’m saying is that these are simple, business reasons why cafe owners who aren’t interested in the ethics should cater to vegans.

    Obviously, the ideal is a cafe or food place that is philosophically supportive of veganism and animal rights, so both only serves veg*n food and tries to promote veganism. But Auckland has one vegan restaurant and no vegan cafes, and a body can’t live off Chinese fake meat alone.

    Posted by David Tong | 23 January 2010, 7:58 pm
  2. //a body can’t live off Chinese fake meat alone.

    I could. 😀

    Posted by Jay | 25 January 2010, 4:26 am
  3. I trust you will approve of the following column (by and large): http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/vegies-please-but-neither-fish-nor-fowl-20100127-mywg.html

    Posted by Peter Sankoff | 28 January 2010, 1:06 pm
  4. The BEST thing a cafe could do is make me an awesome breakfast of vegan pancakes. Honestly they are the easiest thing to make, just flour, soy milk, oil, sugar and baking powder and maybe a little carbonated water to make them extra fluffy. Guaranteed every cafe in Auckland has these ingredients in their kitchens and could make me a wicked stack of them. Bonus points if I can bring my dog.

    Posted by Amz | 21 March 2010, 9:24 am
  5. It’s awesome to see people with my veiws.
    I’m from Palmerston North, I’m vegan, I can’t eat much around this place.
    To combat this, I figure, I make myself food at home, I make all my friends food at home, why not open a soley vegan bakery or cafe.
    And that is exactly what I plan to do 🙂 So if you cats are ever down our way, keep an eye out for me and my shop (will hopefully be opening next year).

    Posted by Melsa | 23 March 2010, 11:51 am
  6. Do cafés cater for people with special dietary needs?

    I don’t think they do, what do you think?

    For my yr 12 studies I am looking to confirm whether or not cafes cater for people who have special dietary needs, eg. diabetes, lactose intolerant, even vegan. If you are one of these people I would appreciate it greatly if you could email me on answersneedquestions@gmail.com so that i can send you a short survey. This would really help me a lot 🙂 thanks

    Posted by Tam | 16 August 2010, 10:40 pm
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