New York City’s Gust Organics made its entire menu vegan last year, in a transition that meat-eating fans of the restaurant saw as too drastic and plant-based eaters regarded as too slow in coming. The eatery improved service and created a vegan menu that drew raves from Yelpers and social media fans, but the new concept didn’t take off fast enough to save the restaurant, which closed last fall.
“The biggest lesson I learned was that in being so outward about the transitions, in my efforts to reveal the changes, I slapped the omnivores in the face, so to speak,” said Kiki Adami, who led the transition. “In the end, what I wish I would have done is less talk and more of letting the food speak for itself.”
Restaurants can’t make it on vegan customers alone, she said, because while they’re loyal and they spend on plant-based meals, there aren’t enough of them. Successful vegan eateries in the city do about 80% of their sales to omnivores who just like the food, she said.
Adami is a committed ethical vegan and activist, and she took to the streets after Gust Organic closed, but not to protest. Instead, she visited as many as 20 restaurants on a given day, asking for the manager and telling her or him that she wanted to eat there but as a vegan she couldn’t because there was nothing on the menu.
“In my activism, I’m not a fan of protesting, I’m not a fan of shaming people. I’m much more dedicated to attracting omnivores rather than making them feel wrong,” she said.
The mission morphed into Veganizer, a startup that helps New York City eateries turn their menus 100% vegan for a day. Adami recruits vegan chefs who work with the restaurant’s chef and kitchen staff to create vegan versions of the dishes, and talks up the events to get the media out and bring in a sell-out crowd.
“I got the idea that, if they could veganize for one night, then they would have the tools to do it. They would see the social media response and see the demand. It would be a real possibility to them, as opposed to something they would never understand or never consider,” she said.
Cabalito, a Salvadoran restaurant known for its pupusas was the first eatery to sign on last November, after the owner and his girlfriend decided to go vegan and to try out vegan food at the restaurant, Adami said. The night turned out to be the restaurant’s best-ever, and now the menu lets customers know that everything on it can be made vegan upon request, she said.
Two others, Cafe Frida and Pagani have since followed, and Pagani’s Feb. 1 vegan pop-up was so well-received that the restaurant is doing it again on March 7.
Veganizer’s chefs work with the restaurant’s recipes for about two weeks to figure out how to make plant-based dishes that most closely resemble the originals, and another two weeks sourcing the ingredients and teaching the restaurant’s chef and kitchen staff how to cook vegan.
Patrons looking to try the vegan menus must make online reservations, and bout 70% of the crowds turning out for Veganizer’s events thus far have been omnivores, Adami said. She markets heavily on social media, from YouTube videos to shares and posts using the hashtag #officiallyveganized.
She’s hoping the word spreads to other markets, and eventually she would love to see chapters in every major US city.
“My goal is one word — normalcy. I want the word ‘vegan’ to be unstigmatized. If every single menu in New York City had the word ‘vegan’ on it, nobody would react the way the do now. Plus, if every single restaurant had at least some vegan options, collectively that would make a huge difference.”
If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about the food and beverage industry. We offer 14 newsletters covering the industry from restaurants to food manufacturing.