UNT ’s all-vegan café sees continued growth

Published in FSD Update

UNT’s Mean Greens has seen double-digit participation growth from last year.

The greens are still mean at the all-vegan café, Mean Greens, at the University of North Texas, in Denton. Recipient of a 2012 Goldies Award (see April 2012 issue), the residential dining facility now has been open for nearly four years—and it continues to perform well beyond expectations.

With only 5% and 2% of the U.S. population identifying as vegetarian and vegan, respectively, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, the double-digit participation growth from last year is indicative of something greater. According to Ken Botts, special projects manager in the UNT Food Department, “it’s not the vegans and vegetarians that are driving it, it’s people making more plant-based options in their dining … and that’s what’s really happening, not just on university campuses but around the nation. People are saying, ‘well, I’m going to go meatless on Mondays’ or ‘I’m going to go meatless before noon’ and they’re realizing that this is a healthy choice for them and that demographic is not only on campuses, but it’s everywhere.”

Open to the public and a favorite of university faculty and staff, Botts has found that Mean Greens’ continued growth isn’t simply because of a loyal customer base that happens to be buying more. “The meal plans continue to grow,” he says. “What’s really cool is it’s the voluntary meal plans, so that’s the students who don’t have to be on a meal plan program, so they’re voting with their dollars. They’re coming to us and saying, ‘We really like the food there and want a meal plan because that’s where we want to eat.’”

What contributes to this continued success? Good food, Botts says. “I think that’s the main driver. We have been fortunate to start the project and still continue the project with Chef Wanda White. If you ask her she’ll tell you she’s not a vegan chef, but she’s a chef and she knows how to cook,” he says. “She refuses to bring anything frozen into the dining hall whatsoever. She’s very much into fresh food. And she understands the trends that are out there as well, so not only is plant-based eating a big trend, but so is international food. She does a lot of Asian cooking and Mexican food and just different cultural foods [in Mean Greens].”

Mean Greens’ success is proving to be a model for other colleges and universities considering upping their vegan and vegetarian offerings. Botts is regularly contacted by both administrators and students from other campuses for advice and guidance on following Mean Greens’ lead. Many of these requests come from the Humane Society of the United States, which has helped spread the word about the concept.

“I usually get the ‘can you help us with some recipes’ and that’s when I give them the resource books [we’ve created],” Botts says. “The questions tend to be more from the administrator level, like ‘what kind of foods do you serve,’ and from the students, when I’m contacted by them, it’s more the mechanics of ‘how do we approach our dining services [director] to get them to bring plant-based options to our campus.’”

Despite the hall’s continued success with international foods and the variety of vegan options available, comfort still remains king. According to Botts, the most popular menu item is the peanut butter and jelly panini served from the panini bar.