Side Ways

Frankly I was shocked. I dined at a nice seafood restaurant last week. I was hungry. The menu was sizeable and impressive. The appetizer section featured an extensive raw bar. And the seafood section featured regional fish and shellfish as you might expect. There was another section, “from the land”, not uncommon in seafood restaurants. Even a seafood restaurant will have patrons with a craving or predilection for chicken, pork or beef, often dining with their seafood-loving partner. In fact I had come with a craving for beef, maybe a nice sirloin. Imagine my surprise.

Under “from the land” there was a single notation about beef: “We will be pleased to serve any three of our beef side dishes for the entrée price of $23.00.”  Beef side dishes?

When I asked the server about this she replied “Sir, we do have a nice selection of beef side dishes. Our tenderloin kabobs are delicious and the sliced sirloin is really good, I have it all the time. Our most popular side is the Chef’s braised short rib. But don’t overlook the beef rib which I can serve with barbecue sauce on the side, or the half-slice of prime rib.”

“But I don’t want a side dish or three side dishes, I want an entrée. Something that the Chef has thought about, created just for this menu. I want flavor, maybe multiple flavors, maybe something original. I want to be pleased by the presentation. I want to be delighted by the creative assembly of flavors and colors and textures on a single plate. I want to be delighted by the way the flavors come together to create a memorable experience. If I wanted sides, I’d go to a cafeteria or buffet restaurant, wouldn’t I?”

OK, enough silliness. Sure this is made up. Unless you substitute the word “vegetarian” for “beef”. Then it’s realistic and happens every day in many restaurants. Or, the variation: “we don’t have any beef (vegetarian) items on the menu, but the chef will be delighted to create a beef entrée for you”.

Why does this happen? Restaurant servers may respond a) “people don’t come here for vegetarian dishes, they come for our great steaks (or seafood or barbecue, etc.)” and b) “we tried putting a vegetarian item on the menu but no one ordered it” and c) “we will make anything the guest asks for if we have the ingredients in the kitchen, so we don’t need it; our vegetarian customers seem pleased with that”.

Is this OK? Well…a) people don’t come just for your seafood (steaks, pork) but you have seafood (steak, pork) items on the menu, right? Because not everyone in a party has the same preferences, and b) was the creative and culinary level of the vegetarian item on a par with your best non-vegetarian items, and was the selection as robust as it is for your other secondary items?, and c) right –  the chef makes a great vegetarian item, but it’s a secret and we can’t print it on the menu?

There are less obvious reasons. “I can’t charge the same amount as I do for my seafood and meat items”, for example. This isn’t correct, but it reflects the inferiority some restaurateurs have about their vegetarian culinary ability: “who would pay $20 for vegetables?” It’s the wrong question. The right question is “what can I create that has the same levels of creativity and complexity as my best items, and leaves the customer wanting more, wanting to come back?”

This isn’t a plea to save animals. Or a tribute to “World Vegetarian Day” (it was Oct 1). It’s a reminder to stay in touch with trends. Consider some recent findings:

  • Vegetarian meals aren’t just for vegetarians: Although New York City-based Harris Interactive reports that 3% of Americans are everyday vegetarians, R&I’s March 2010 New American Diner Study finds that 23% of consumers are eating more meatless entrées than they did a year ago. Meanwhile, 40% of nonvegetarians say they sometimes order vegetarian or vegan menu items just because they sound good.
  • Young people drive the trend. Last year’s Harris Interactive Poll commissioned by Vegetarian Resource Group asked adults about eating meat (“meat” did not include poultry or fish). 8% said they never eat meat. The demographic details are telling.  But for students alone the percentage nearly doubles, to 15%. For females 18-34 it’s 12% – even for males in the 18-34 age group it’s 9%. www.vrg.org/press/2009poll.htm 
  • Females drive the trend. Women are 60% more likely to be vegetarians than men are (3.33% vs. 2.07%) (www.PsychologyToday.com)  
  • Vegetarian entrees hit support other trends, like the industry’s “sustainability” and “healthy eating” trends
  • The very best establishments and Chefs already offer standout vegetarian items – of course, there’s the story about Steve Wynn and the restaurants at Wynn Las Vegas (and Encore) that added or expanded their vegan offerings. But just Google “top restaurants” for any major city, even in the Midwest which has fewer vegetarians, percentage wise, than the coasts, and download their menus. I did this and found 8 of the “ten best” had at least one enticing vegetarian item on the menu.

Those are my thoughts, let me know yours.

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