Vegan vs Vegetarian: Knowing the Difference


Today’s restaurant-goers are more conscientious of the connection between food and health than ever before. From vegetarians and vegans to carnivores who want to reduce their meat intake, there is a global shift toward plant-based diets. Plant-based eating was named the 2018 trend of the year by international food and restaurant consultants Baum + Whiteman.

This significant shift to plant-based foods makes it crucial for restaurants to fully understand what it means to be a vegan or vegetarian and get as creative with their plant-based offerings as they do with their meat offerings. To keep diners satisfied and intrigued, think beyond the simple veggie burger, learn the parameters for vegetarianism and veganism, and serve thoughtfully crafted, substantial, and flavorful plant-based meals.

Defining Veganism and Vegetarianism

According to research firm GlobalData, there’s been a 600% increase in people identifying as vegan in the U.S. in the last three years and there are over seven million vegetarians in the U.S. currently. Today’s consumer preferences suggest that diversifying your menu with both vegan and vegetarian selections is no longer optional – it’s essential. Before you fine-tune your menu, it’s important to know the specifications involved with each eating style. Knowing the difference between veganism and vegetarianism will help you create more appealing dishes for these categories, attracting customers to your restaurant with dishes they crave. Creating outstanding vegan and vegetarian offerings doesn’t just appeal to the customers with these preferred eating styles, but also those they dine with who are seeking a mutually agreeable location.

Vegetarian: Someone who has forsaken meat products, from fish to fowl to beef, from their diets. To complicate matters, there are three subcategories within vegetarianism: lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, and ovo-lacto vegetarians. Lacto-vegetarians do not eat eggs but do eat other dairy products while ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but no other dairy. Ovo-lacto vegetarians don’t consume meat but do eat eggs and dairy products.

Vegan: Someone who does not consume meat products as well as any animal-based foods including all dairy products (eggs, cheese, butter, and milk), honey, and figs (wasps begin their lives in figs).

Make sure that not only your chefs, but also your wait staff are well versed regarding the differences in vegan and vegetarian do’s and don’ts. They should know each dish’s ingredients inside and out, so there is no risk of steering a customer in the wrong direction.

Keep it Interesting

Chefs tend to treat vegetarian and vegan dishes as “second class” and are often uneducated, lacking a strategy for executing produce-forward dishes and marketing towards this demographic. The key is to focus on researching compatible ingredients that produce the best flavors without relying on meat to impress. If you stick to this strategy, your reach will extend far beyond just vegan and vegetarian customers. However, accommodating those who are vegetarian and vegan shouldn’t be viewed as a problem – look at the creation of these items as a way to be inventive with various sources of alternative proteins and produce and an opportunity for growth.

Some chefs may think that a plain salad or a simple veggie burger will suffice for vegetarian and vegan offerings. It may be tempting to serve a dish that simply eliminates the meat components and call it vegetarian or vegan; however, these diners will notice the lack of substantial ingredients, effort, and inspiration. Treat vegan and vegetarian dishes the same way you’d treat a meat dish: layer the flavors, consider how they meld together, incorporate an equivalent serving of plant-based protein, research cultural and ethnic influences, and think about texture. If you make it as interesting as you would a meat entrée, you might find that your omnivore customers order that menu item as often as your vegan or vegetarian customers do.

More Than Meat

Remember that vegan and vegetarian diners savor food like any customer; they still enjoy the pleasures of eating, and they too appreciate delicious flavors and textures. No one wants to walk out of a restaurant still feeling hungry, so incorporating acceptable proteins and fiber into vegetarian or vegan main courses will make your customers feel satisfied. Don’t just toss a plain salad— add beans/legumes, grains, seeds, and/or nuts. According to Datassential, two-thirds of operators have menued whole or ancient grains in grain bowls, breakfast cookies, or oatmeal. These items provide protein and energy and can be called out on menus as “functional” and “superfoods” to increase their appeal.

Another key approach to keeping your vegan and vegetarian customers feeling satiated is utilizing umami flavors. Vegetarian stand-ins for umami foods that appeal to a wide range of taste buds include tomatoes, sweet potatoes, jackfruit, and mushrooms. Substitute a burger patty with a Portobello mushroom, or consider marinating mushrooms in Korean sauces and seasonings and serving Korean-inspired mushroom bulgogi tacos. Jackfruit is another trendy, savory ingredient that has found its place on the menu as a versatile, substantial meat alternative. Jackfruit can be made into barbeque pulled “pork,” jackfruit “meatballs,” or taco “meat.”

Some chefs may struggle with incorporating protein into vegetarian and vegan meals because they don’t know what alternatives to use or they have never worked with them before. Alternate sources of proteins include beans, quinoa, wheat berries, amaranth, farro, lentils, soybeans, nut butters, nut milks, hemp seeds, seitan (wheat gluten), tofu, and tempeh (versatile fermented soy products). According to Datassential, seitan has been appearing more frequently on restaurant menus including Chive Kitchen in Detroit, MI, who serves panko-crusted grilled seitan “chicken” with mild Portuguese piri piri sauce. Fare Well located in Washington D.C., also offers seitan “wings” coated in buffalo or barbeque sauce. Tofu and tempeh are similar in texture and taste, providing a blank canvas for flavor innovation. Anything you can do with a chicken breast, you can do with tofu or tempeh: grill it and adorn it with barbeque sauce, create a sandwich from it, or crumble it up and add to chili. Ivan Ramen, owner of Slurp Shop in New York, serves a Tofu Coney Island dish made with fried tofu smothered in a vegetarian mushroom chili with a drizzle of mustard, chopped onions, and scallions. Tofu can also be transformed into noodles, also known as shirataki. Shirataki noodles are excellent for Asian-inspired soups, stir-frys, and curries.

Tempura, a trending Japanese-inspired appetizer, requires a simple preparation, yet heightens the sophistication of any vegetable. Try coating bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, green beans, and radishes in tempura batter, frying, and serving with appealing, trendy condiments such as miso-mustard or ginger-tamari sauce. With nearly one-third of consumers limiting their meat consumption (Datassential), even steakhouses should offer meatless options. Cauliflower is dominating the industry as a versatile vegetable that can take the place of meat, prepared using the same technique as you would on any steak. Contemporary Philadelphia restaurant, Fork, serves a Sicilian cauliflower steak adorned with marcona almonds, currants, and lemon. Chefs can also heighten the appeal of cauliflower steak by serving it with other health conscious, plant-based items such as Portobello mushroom bacon and parsnip fries. Find vegetable tempura and cauliflower steak recipes at Giving all vegetable-centric items the same care and attention you give meat entrées can help your operation see an increased ROI and keep customers returning for more.

Mimicking Meat

Keep in mind that not all vegetarian or vegan customers started life with these eating preferences — many transitioned to the veggie way of life as they matured, which means that these consumers may indeed enjoy the taste or texture of meat but, whether for moral, religious, or health reasons, eliminated it from their diets.

For those customers, menuing the Impossible™ Burger (Item #045638) is a great solution, as it offers the look, feel, taste, and texture of a real burger but is made from plants and heme, an iron-containing molecule. The Impossible Burger is gaining traction on menus and allows customers to sink their teeth into a juicy “burger” while still following a plant-based diet. It appeals to those who eat plant-based for environmental reasons, as it uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to burgers made from cows. Because consumers have various motivations for ordering plant-based foods, it can also be helpful to list these facts on your menu to appeal to those motivated by sustainability, clean eating, or opposition of animal cruelty, which may include meat-eating customers. The Impossible Burger can be pleasing to vegans and vegetarians alike, as well as meat eaters. Top it with plant-based sauces such as a BBQ-tahini sauce or vegan Cheddar cheese. For the lacto-vegetarians, the Impossible Burger can be topped with any variety of cheese or with an egg for the ovo-vegetarian. You can also play around with interesting condiments and other toppings for an authentic burger experience.

It’s true you can’t predict how many vegans or vegetarians will cross your threshold on a given night; however, with the rise of plant-based eating styles across the country, it’s wise to make your restaurant a welcoming place where anyone can enjoy a filling, flavorful meal.


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