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Vegan Food in Restaurants: The Changing Tide of Food Preferences (Listen Up, Restaurants!)

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First off, let me tell you that I'm a friendly vegan! I'm not judgmental, and I truly believe that it's not my business to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't eat. I grew up in the South, greatly enjoying chicken-fried steak and barbecued ribs, and every kind of cheesy thing I could get my hands on. I loved meat; never thought about it. Until I thought about it. After a few years of transitioning, I've been vegan for seven years. And it seems I'm not alone.

I went out to dinner last night with friends and came home fairly hungry. If you don't count the bread I tried not to eat too much of and the olives from my martini, or the little side dish of steamed vegetables, there wasn't much I could call a meal. I scanned the menu for anything that I could eat, but all I saw was lobster, lamb, fish, steak, chicken, veal, pork, and pastas that had any combination of the aforementioned meats with cheese or cream. Nothing for me but the dreaded Grilled Vegetable Plate.

I would SO love a hearty dish with a center of the plate protein, with some TLC from the chef -- i.e. sauces and garnishes -- to make it just as fulfilling as the meat and dairy dishes. I would pay good money for it! And I know a lot of other people would too -- and not just vegan people.

Eating vegan(ish) or vegetarian is mainstream now, and growing ever more so. Oprah, Ellen and Martha each devoted shows to eating vegan. "Good Morning America," "Extra" and "Dr. Oz" have also dedicated segments to the growing popularity of eating less meat and more plant-based food, and you will find in just about every major magazine or newspaper, there are features about the ever increasing vegan trend. Natalie Portman, Tobey McGuire, Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton, Larry Page, Biz Stone, Ricky Williams and Tony Gonzales are all vegan (or veganish!); these folks are the trendsetters -- actors, athletes, business and thought leaders.

I realize that vegan is not how the majority of people eat, and restaurants are in the business of giving their customers what they want, but the trend is quite assuredly moving toward reducing and replacing meat. In fact, I've noticed that when I can finagle something interesting from the chef (assuming the waiter bothers to approach him with the request) that is both hearty and healthy, nine out of ten times most of the people at the table will say, "I'll have what she's having."

Whether it's because someone wants a break from animal protein three meals a day every day, or they are concerned with their health or weight, or they want to be conscious eaters for the environment, a vegan option is extremely appealing when presented well.

The problem is, restaurants are generally not presenting them well. A plate of vegetables situated next to a baked potato is okay in a pinch, but I wouldn't want to pay a lot for it, nor would I return to that restaurant for it. I would choose another place that everyone would be happy, where my husband could get fish and I could get something plant-based (and not just pasta with tomato sauce ... too many carbs, and boring).

A meal that looks like what everyone else is enjoying would be so, so gratifying and appreciated! And there are so many ways to make a meal with a vegetarian protein using Gardein (looks and tastes like different meats, high protein, low fat and is available through distributors like Sysco and US Foods ), seitan (wheat protein ... made into cutlets or strips), lentils, beans, tofu, chickpeas, tempeh or other high-protein meat alternatives. And on a business note, the profit margin is greater as plant-based protein is cheaper than animal protein, and is how many other cultures get protein.

Check out these stunning statistics on the where the food trend is going:

Number of Vegetarians/Vegans and Trends in Vegetarian/Vegan Eating

- In a 2010 study from marketing firm Context Marketing that included 600 respondents, they found that 21 percent said "vegetarian" is important or very important to them. Fourteen percent said "vegan" is important or very important to them.
- The average American ate 14 pounds less meat (including poultry) per year in 2009 (208 pounds per person) than in 2006 (222 pounds per person).
- In feedback surveys among college students at campuses that Bon App├ętit Management Co. (which manages more than 4,000 corporate, college and university accounts)
oversees, in 2005-2006 an average of 8 percent said that they were vegetarian. The 2009-2010 survey, however, had very different results: 12 percent identified themselves as vegetarian.

Vegetarian/Vegan Trends in Dining Out

- According to a January 2011 USA Today article on marketing trends for 2011, 47 percent of Americans are trying to reduce their meat consumption.
- A 2009 issue of Nation's Restaurant News suggested adding vegetarian/vegan options to the menu as one of its top strategies for improving business. The publication noted that vegetarian food is generally less expensive for restaurants to procure, and mentioned the "veto vote," the tendency for families with one or more vegetarians to bypass any restaurant that serves no meat-free fare.

Let me just leave you with this: I often dine out in Santa Barbara, and my favorite restaurant is Lucky's Steakhouse. They make a mean martini and have a fantastic wine list, and the ambiance is festive and fun. They now feature a tofu dish, right alongside the steak, chicken and fish on the menu. A few friends and I had requested something other than the dreaded Grilled Vegetable Plate for so long, they finally relented. Not happily, at first, but they did it. They took one of their fish dishes and simply swapped out the fish for tofu, grilled it over braised spinach and a sweet miso sauce.

I usually start with a chopped salad of three kinds of lettuce, chickpeas, onions and avocado. We get a side of sweet potato fries to share. I asked the manager how the dish was doing, and he said, "I'm shocked, but it's flying out the door!" His customers are not vegan. Not even vegetarian or pescetarian. But everyone these days, it seems, wants to lighten up on meat a bit. And so they come to the steakhouse for the ambience and a good drink, and they enjoy a hearty protein-centered, plant-based meal, and everyone wins! The other restaurants, we simply don't consider anymore because we want everyone -- veg or carnivore -- to be happy!

Here's a little starter guide:

- Instead of milk or cream, use almond, soy or cashew cream
- Instead of butter, use Earth Balance (you would not know the difference)
- Instead of chicken broth, use vegetable broth
- Instead of chicken, use Gardein, seitan or tofu
- Instead of ground beef, use Smart Ground meatless crumbles or lentils
- Instead of cheese, use Daiya or Teese non-dairy cheese

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