Monday, May 12, 2008

Publican's rant: Restaurant operators, know thy market!

My wife is a vegetarian by philosophical principle, and she cannot consume dairy products owing to lactose intolerance. Consequently, she reckons herself a vegan, but one who’ll still eat eggs and the occasional fish.

Meanwhile, I’m an omnivore, and a meat and cheese lover of long standing who has learned that it is both easy and tasty to prepare suitable meals at home that satisfy both of us. It’s simply amazing how little effort it takes to adapt recipes and menus so as to accommodate vegetarians and vegans.

We live in New Albany, a city that is placing a great deal of revitalization hope in its steadily expanding downtown dining and entertainment zone. At the same time, ours is a city apparently inhabited by a gene pool that by all rights should be the topic of a major university’s study into the thinking habits of natives never exposed to thinking. The absence of empathy here is a startling and disturbing feature of daily life.

Not that we aren't used to it by now. When the time comes to eat out at restaurants, it takes little in the way of forethought for us to conclude that places like steakhouses might not be the best bet for vegetarian fare. Accordingly, we seldom dine together at such places. I simply eat my meat at other times.

Apart from the sort of traditional places that we know to avoid, it remains that in today’s diverse and multicultural world, it’s hard to imagine any eatery seeking status as “up-market” or “upscale” or just plain “in tune with society” not having a slight notion of purpose-made vegetarian/vegan options, ones that exceed the incredibly tired cop-out of “just put a few of our vegetable side dishes together and make a meal.” That’s the sort of thing you’d expect from the VFW or Elks lodge kitchen some time during the Ford administration.

In fairness, I’m aware that the friendlier (and more professional) of chefs will often prepare something to suit upon request – where have you gone, Dave Clancy? – but why place this onus on the customer at a time when all aspects of the dining scene point to greater choice?

Granted, a typical restaurant can’t be all things to all people, and yet if you’re already doing pasta and have olive oil close by, a good veggie stir fry is only moments away. Why not keep the comparatively few ingredients required to make such a stir-fry from scratch, prep the presentation, and list it as an everyday option right there on the menu? Why discomfit an increasingly growing segment of the population by constructing bills of fare still built almost exclusively around meat?

Haven’t we gotten past chicken fried steak as the star menu dish? For heavens sake, even today’s truck stops do better than that – and they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are.

The reason why this is starting to annoy me so greatly is because it reminds me far too much of what I’ve gone through for so long in my life as a beer lover, and particularly, of the typical tavern owner’s clueless, and perhaps even gutless, refusal to cater even slightly to that segment of the population wishing to drink something other than a mass-market swill.

Because: Not only is ignorance of a constantly changing marketplace an insult to customers who’ve already done their homework and know what they want, it’s also damaging to the bottom line. Vegetarians and vegans want to spend their money just like anyone else, and they are sadly accustomed to accepting less than their due – eating wretched iceberg lettuce salads stripped of all things “chef” and making do with French fries (and not thinking about how the fries were prepared).

Why not accommodate these potentially loyal customers up front, rather than force them to ask for something special … especially when the scant knowledge required to pro-actively anticipate such conditions is something we have a right to expect from operators who’ve been around long enough to know better, and who remind us of their vast experience at every turn?

The preceding rant stems directly from an experience with a recently minted restaurant located in New Albany, as well as with the situation at another local establishment, where a special musical event included a meal, and the options for the meal were two choices of meat, but nothing vegetarian or vegan – and, where apparently no one present ever considered that such a question might arise. I simply find it inexcusable that the former restaurant bills itself as “upscale,” but doesn’t have a single vegetarian/vegan menu item on the menu except hummus – which wasn’t in stock when I visited.

In the latter case, it required a great deal of effort on my part, as well as the welcomed assistance of a veteran waiter (you know who you are, and thanks) who went well beyond the norm, both in advance and on the day of the show, to ensure that Diana would be able to dine at what, in the end, was a rather expensive event.

Why is enlightenment so elusive in this benighted locale?

Here's a promise. We don't plan on having an extensive menu at the NABC Bank Street Brewhouse, but there'll be more than one thing there on a daily basis for vegetarians and vegans. These will be there, on the menu card, available for ordering without feeling self-conscious asking for them. I predict that whatever these items turn out to be, there'll be a demand, because I already know the demand is there.

So there.


Jim said...

Thanks for this post, Roger. I am almost exactly in the same situation as your wife, though I can tough it through dairy with a little Lactaid on hand and eat poultry or seafood at least once a week. Nonetheless, even here in Indianapolis, I am continually disappointed by the number of "elite" restaurants that have no choices or woeful choices for vegetarian and vegan diners. But you're exactly right--our numbers are growing, so sooner or later, restaurants must adapt.

Thank goodness that beer is vegetarian/vegan fare!

Jim from Hoosier Beer Geek

Cathy said...

Amen! My hubby and I are vegetarians for philosophical and ethical reasons. We love to eat out, but our local options are limited. Its getting better, but I know the supply has certainly not kept up with the demand.