The fabulous Liz Dee devotes most of her time these days to her candy company (you just might have heard of it…), but we still adore her and her invaluable insights about animal activism. In this piece, dusted off in celebration of #ThrowbackThursday, Liz shares her insightful advice about how to be the “deal-breaker” at non-vegan restaurants.
This article originally appeared on Our Hen House on April 2, 2013. If you’d like to see a certain OHH article resurrected, email us at info [at] ourhenhouse [dot] org.
You recently [EDITOR’S NOTE: Well, not so recently anymore…but we’re sure you’re still in love!] fell in love with Liz Dee when she joined us on the Our Hen House podcast (Episode 164) discussing the truly fascinating way that she went vegan. You see, Liz is a fifth-generation candy maker, and when her company was contacted by some folks wondering whether her products were vegan, she did some basic research and found out that they were. Liz decided to create a landing page for her company’s website devoted to explaining what veganism was, and why her products were indeed free of animal products. In the process of doing her now in-depth research, Liz’s light turned on — she learned all about what goes on for farmed animals behind closed doors, immediately went vegan herself, and never looked back. We’re thrilled that Liz is Our Hen House’s Publications Coordinator [EDITOR’S NOTE: Liz is now our Associate Producer], and we were delighted when she covered the all-vegan Vaute Couture fashion show for our online magazine, and then detailed for us her personal journey conquering her fear of flyering. Today, the fabulous Liz Dee is back, this time to discuss an incredibly simple way we can each effectively “be the deal breaker” when it comes to reaching out to non-vegan restaurants with requests for cruelty-free cuisine. This is something we all should be doing.
Be the Deal Breaker: Multiply Your Influence at Non-Vegan Restaurants
by Liz Dee
In our ideal vegan world, every restaurant would be totally plant-based, and animal products would be a nightmare from the past. And, on the road to progress for our ideal world, wouldn’t it be nice if, at the very least, menus included multiple options for those of us wishing to ditch the cruelty from our cuisine? Wouldn’t it be great to see a menu listing those dishes that could easily be made vegan, with clear labeling to help us decide on the farro risotto or the broccoli frittata? Because that is too rarely the case (for now), it is our duty as vegans to encourage restaurants to begin making steps in the vegan direction. This is sometimes referred to as food activism. And it’s easier than you think.
With vegans making up such a small fraction of society, and therefore of a restaurant’s clientele, how can we influence these non-vegan restaurants to expand their offerings in a compassionate direction? To start, we can call ahead, even when we really don’t feel like bothering. Even better, we can position ourselves as the “deal breakers.” By that, I mean that we can multiply our influence by making it clear that not only our business, but that of our entire party, is contingent upon whether the restaurant can offer vegan options … plural.
Case in point: I recently went to a friend’s birthday brunch at an upscale restaurant in NYC. As my friends and I were forming the plans, I jumped at the chance to make the reservation. The birthday girl was relieved to hand over the party planner hat, and she said that if her eatery of choice wouldn’t serve up a vegan meal, we could go somewhere else that would.
A quick search of the restaurant’s menu online turned up no vegan options at her destination of choice, aside from half of a grapefruit, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. I let their reservationist know right off the bat that I wanted to make a reservation for six people, but only if they could accommodate a vegan diner. In other words, if they couldn’t offer vegan options for one of us, they were going to lose the business of all six. I was the deal breaker.
Not wanting to risk losing a party of six (cha-ching!), the reservationist was clearly paying attention. I explained what vegan means, and asked what options they could offer to accommodate. She told me they had been getting a lot of vegan requests recently, as “it seems to be a popular choice” (indeed!), but she’d have to call me back after speaking with the chef. Before we got off the phone, I made it a point to suggest offering vegan options permanently on the menu and clearly labeling them as such, because, after all, as they experienced for themselves, there is growing demand for plant-based meals.
That was the first of several conversations I had with the reservationist, including one the night before our brunch. As luck (and a little relentlessness on my part) would have it, the chef was happy to offer vegan options, and even told me in advance what they would be – the aforementioned grapefruit, two hearty salads to choose from, and vegan chili. Perhaps this wasn’t the gourmet vegan meal I had hoped for, but it was definitely progress.
By the time I walked into the restaurant, the reservationist and I were practically BFFs. As my friends and I were being seated, the host and the server both made a point to welcome the vegan in the party – or, as our server said, the “person of the vegan persuasion.” So far, so good …
When it came time to order, I happily decided on the chili and one of the salads – all the while mentally patting myself on the back for my superb preparation. No picking at grapefruit for me – or so I thought. A few minutes later, the host came to the table to break the news: They couldn’t make vegan chili after all. The morning chef had prepped every dish with cheese on top, not having seen the note from the night before. There was a “breakdown in communication,” she said as the server stood behind her mouthing “I am so sorry!” Seriously?
I guess you thought this was going to be a story about how easy being the deal breaker is and how it always goes according to plan. Well, sadly, not so. As I polished off my double salad and half of a grapefruit, I was glad I brought along a few energy bars in my bag (a vegan’s lifesaver!). The most disappointing part of the day was not the rabbit food I wound up eating (truth be told, I’m a fan of 1970s-esque hippie grub like sprouts and trail mix). Rather, it was the fact that my meager meal made veganism look inaccessible and barren to my dining mates – which, of course, it is anything but.
Veganism is full of abundance and vitality. The day I learned about what happens to animals behind closed doors – and in one fell swoop decided to go vegan – not only was I able to finally live a life in accordance with my ethics, but my palate was hugely expanded to new cuisines, tastes that I had never before been privy to. I knew that was true, even though my lunch of lettuce did not make my point very well.
I also knew that my work with this restaurant was not over.
A few days later, I called the restaurant again. Even though I intended to be on my very best behavior (veganism need not be defined by angry, reluctant salad munchers), there was no way I could just let this slide. I was, after all, supposed to be the deal breaker. But before I could say very much at all, the general manager jumped on the phone, instantly apologetic. He told me that there were “repercussions in the kitchen” because of the restaurant’s “hugely embarrassing mistake.” He said they often cater to vegans, “more and more each day.” I politely reiterated my suggestion of adding vegan options to the menu and clearly labeling them as such. I appreciate how seriously the manager seemed to take the incident.
The whole experience indeed left me a little hungry, but not entirely surprised. Being the deal breaker doesn’t guarantee you’ll get your way, even if all signs indicate such. The important thing here is speaking up and asking for what we want and, when setbacks happen – and they will – trying to turn them into opportunities.
I should know. As a business owner (a fifth-generation candy maker, to be precise) who was introduced to veganism because of consumers speaking up to me, I have experienced the benefits of this firsthand. In short, some of our customers wanted to know if our candy was vegan – which, happily, it is. So, after hearing from these ethically minded consumers of ours, my colleagues and I decided to add a page to our website highlighting our product’s vegan-friendliness. As I researched which issues to cover on the vegan landing page of our site, I found myself waking up to the cruel realities of animal agriculture. As a result, I went vegan, too. It really was that simple.
And so, I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum with this. I’ve been the deal breaker, and, prior to my “vegan enlightenment,” I’ve been the businessperson dealing with the deal breakers, trying to cater to their needs. In the process, I changed my life. Now, I want to change the world.
Lesson learned: When it comes to increasing vegan options on menus, we must all use our voices, show that there is demand, and reach out to restaurant owners in a friendly, nonjudgmental, supportive way. Frankly, it might not always work. But even when it doesn’t work, we are still planting seeds for compassionate cuisine.
When it comes to making sure restaurants have vegan options, here are some tips on being the deal breaker:
- State your case, nicely. Be friendly, and be clear that the business brought by your entire group (that means money!) depends on the restaurant offering vegan options.
- Assume nothing. Don’t assume they will remember you from your phone call last week. Don’t assume they will make a salad without cheese (even if they said they would). Which brings me to …
- Call. Call again. And again. One more time the night before? How about the day of? Sometimes you have to be relentless. Your friendliness and determination might just result in a seitan scaloppini (or at least more than a salad and fries). Plus, by then, the restaurant will probably know what vegan means.
- Call yet again! Remember, this is not just about you and your lunch. Being the deal breaker is about changing the world for animals, one restaurant at a time. After your meal is over, call the restaurant yet again, thank them for accommodating you, and then urge them to make the vegan option a mainstay on the menu. You can use their Twitter or Facebook page to talk about the delicious vegan option they gave you, thus proving to others that they, too, can try vegan on for size. (Commenting like this can also be an effective way of expressing any disappointment you might have had, though it’s important to simultaneously offer a possible solution.)
- Always carry reserves. No matter how well you prepare, things may still fall apart. Bring backup foods like trail mix, energy bars, or a sandwich from home. Extra food may seem like overkill when you don’t need it, but when you do, you’ll be pretty darn glad about your contingency plan.
Veganism is powerful, and its truth is compelling. I will always be grateful for those deal breakers whose voices led me down my vegan path. Perhaps my voice has helped some people take one step further on their journey to veganism, and maybe your voice will, too. As Edward Everett Hale famously said, “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Do the something that you can do. Speak up for veganism. Be the deal breaker!
Elizabeth Laurel Dee, is a fifth-generation candy maker with a vegan sweet tooth and co-owner of Smarties Candy Company. She practices and advocates for compassion and freedom for all beings. A firm believer in Gandhi’s idea of being the change you wish to see in the world, Elizabeth is always looking for new ways to put her master’s degree in media, culture, and communication to good use through effective animal advocacy. In addition to leafleting, she is fond of getting lost in a book, practicing yoga, and writing. Elizabeth celebrates life with a brave cat, a cuddly dog, and a kind man she bumped into one day on West 4th Street and Mercer.