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When Catering to Vegans Is Just Good Economic Sense

How animal rights organizations impact their local restaurant scenes

Photo: The Great Escape Ice Cream/Facebook

The village of Watkins Glen near the Finger Lakes region of New York is not on most people’s radar. Only slightly more than 1,800 people call the village home. It’s mostly known for its automobile track, which has hosted Formula 1 and NASCAR racing. On Yelp, Watkins Glen has exactly 38 listings for restaurants — a few of which are permanently closed, while six are national fast-food chains.

"Most of the businesses recognize the opportunity and get very creative."

So to an outside observer, it might be surprising that 10 of this village’s restaurants, food trucks, and ice cream parlors have gone out of their way to cater to vegan eaters. The local pub offers house-made seitan; one of the few upscale options has an entire vegan menu available upon request. A sign in front of the local ice cream parlor proclaims "VEGAN" in big block letters.

Watkins Glen isn’t the site of a hippie commune or a university town. There probably aren’t that many more vegans living there than the U.S. average. A 2011 poll showed that only about 2.5 percent of the American population is strictly vegan — roughly 8 million people. (In Watkins Glen, 45 people would need to be vegan to be "average.")

What’s different about this town is that in the early ‘90s, Gene Baur and Lori Houston decided to found a sanctuary that would rescue neglected, unwanted, or abandoned sheep, goats, cows, chickens, and everything in between — giving farm animals a home and medical care to live out their days. (I lived and interned at the Watkins Glen location in 2012.) Humans are not allowed to consume animal products on the premises, and some, though not all, of the 38 full-time employees are vegan in their off-farm lives as well. Farm Sanctuary is now an animal advocacy group with a multi-million dollar budget as well as a rescue organization with two additional sanctuaries in California. And the 500 animals at the Watkins Glen location get a lot of visitors — 11,264 in 2015 alone.

Photo: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Though no one is surprised when a city’s Chinatown has a number of delicious dumpling restaurants or Koreatown is filled with banchan and barbecue, we rarely consider how the people who live (or even just visit) a location shape the foods available for purchase. Towns where hunting is popular would be remiss not to have a processing facility for deer and other wild game. Huntington Beach, the Southern California surf mecca, still has countless post-surf friendly eateries and beach snacks. And vegan hotspots — whether at an animal sanctuary or PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia — will have restaurants that accommodate their dietary needs, as well.

As soon as Farm Sanctuary started welcoming visitors in 1991, Baur and other early employees went into local businesses to ask them if they’d consider putting vegan food on their menus. Keep in mind, this was when "non-dairy" alternatives (when people could find them) often consisted of rice milk, rice milk ice cream, and powdered soy (to turn into milk). Baur says that they started collecting restaurants with vegan options into their first "Where to Dine Vegan" guide — provided to guests — soon after.

"As part of that, we’d reach out to different restaurants and ask what they had that was vegan... Most of the businesses recognize the opportunity and get very creative," Baur says. "A company started to create vegan meat in Watkins based on the demand and interest, and they did it completely on their own." For a business owner, building an audience in a small town is always difficult, so recognizing niche local communities is a way to ensure viability.

Great Escape, Watkins Glen’s ice cream parlor, first opened in 1982, but it wasn’t until eight or nine years ago, according to co-owner Jackie Honsberger, that Farm Sanctuary asked them to make a vegan ice cream. "They said they’d send customers down to us," Honsberger says. "That’s how it came about."

It took them seven (yes seven) years to find a way to make vegan hard ice cream that wasn’t "chunky" or "icy." Honsberger says they’re simply willing to do it "because we can. If I had to hire someone to make vegan ice cream it wouldn’t be feasible." But it’s a small town: She’s there seven days a week; why not experiment a little? Today Great Escape also has vegan soft serve and vegan baked goods.

Baur says Farm Sanctuary’s effect on local restaurant menus hasn’t been as large near their California shelters — partially because there are already so many vegan options available in Los Angeles or other cities nearby. Veganism, vegetarianism, and even the part-time "flexitarian" diets, anecdotally, seem to be growing throughout the United States based on the number of options now catering to them, and many restaurants serving healthy fare or even booming chains like salad-bowl hawking Sweetgreens cater to a multi-dietary audience. This is especially evident in larger U.S. cities, making it impossible to discern how much of an effect one organization has on dining — if any. "We are playing a role, but the weight of that role is lighter in that area," Baur says of these shelters.

This has certainly been the case for another "vegan hotspot," near PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. Compared to the 1,800 residents of Watkins Glen, Norfolk has over 260,000. Only 127 of those citizens are PETA employees. Like many cities, Norfolk is easier understood within smaller neighborhoods. It would be inaccurate to say that PETA has turned the city vegan, but they have had an outsized effect on trendy nearby neighborhood Ghent, where restaurants are filled with vegan options. In Norfolk as a whole, you’d be unlikely to find a veggie burger on some fast-food menus and can still find foie gras and veal served just a mile away from PETA headquarters.

When it first arrived in Norfolk 20 years ago, PETA staff asked area restaurants to "veganize" their menus. Though a PETA spokesperson says they did have some success, many restaurateurs have made the choice to offer a wide variety of dietary options on their own.

Dan Carron, an outreach coordinator for PETA, says that when the organization first came to Norfolk, "people didn’t know what to expect. There were news reports that we would be throwing rocks at fishermen and stuff." Despite PETA’s reputation for flashy campaigns, they knew it would be a bad idea to alienate their neighbors. Finding the line between "good neighbor" and maintaining its reputation as an activist group that, as Carron says, "doesn’t shy away from anything," seems difficult. But so far, local businesses seem happier catering to their staff and new vegans than to try and chase them away.

One of Ghent’s most popular vegan establishments is Yorgo’s Bageldashery. While the bagels themselves have always been vegan, says owner Greg Peterman, it wasn’t until a few years in that they began veganizing their whole menu. Peterman had a weekly catering gig at PETA and noticed that while he’d bring in bagels, the office always had a smorgasbord of spreads, cream cheese, and other all-vegan toppings. Why weren’t they doing that, too? "Our first was a vegan chicken salad, which is still one of our number-one sellers," Peterman says. "We kept gradually adding to the menu."

It was a simple business decision — PETA is nearby, with vegan workers, let’s give them a reason to eat at our restaurant.

Today, PETA provides subsidized lunches to staff three days a week and a "larger catering affair" once a month — a compelling reason for local restaurants to offer vegan items.

Other neighboring restaurants like Kotobuki Norfolk and Cogan’s Pizza have also incorporated vegan options on their menus. Cogan's general manager Jennifer Siddens says they redid their menu a year and a half ago, adding options like vegan cheese and meats that customers could substitute from their animal-based counterparts. Since then, Siddens says "vegan sales have gone crazy."

Kotobuki was one of the first restaurants to add vegan options when they opened in 1999. Patricia Basnight, whose mother originally opened the restaurant, said there’s already a lot of "faux meat substitution within the Asian community." It was a simple business decision — PETA is nearby, with vegan workers, let’s give them a reason to eat at our restaurant. Their menu has an entire page dedicated to their vegetarian or vegan items. "Our restaurant serves vegan options 40-50 percent of the time," Basnight says. She believes that while the restaurant would have done well without catering to a vegan clientele, "we wouldn’t have done as well."

Peterman says that the best part about having vegan customers is that they are more likely to talk about the restaurant than his omnivorous clientele. "Our business is built on word of mouth," he says. "Right now [vegan food] is a smaller percentage of our sales, but the publicity of our vegan and vegetarian menu are probably five-fold over anyone else talking about our business."

Overall, it’s impossible to know the exact influence organizations like Farm Sanctuary or PETA have on the surrounding dining options — simply because no one counts things like "restaurants with a significant number of vegan options per capita." What’s clear is that restaurants do take note when customers repeatedly ask for dining options that accommodate a dietary restriction. At a certain point, it’s just bad business to ignore the requests. "I’ve seen people come in and say, ‘Hey, we see you have vegan options,’ then come back again and again," Siddens says. "It’s nice to see people return."

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @TKDano.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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