Satisfying vegan and vegetarian customers has long been a concern of foodservice operators. Last month, at the national conference for the National Association of College and University Foodservices, Dwight Collins, executive chef at 15,800-student University of California, Santa Cruz, spoke with three other operators about vegetarian and vegan options. Here, he tells FSD how to develop a successful vegetarian/vegan menu mix that might even entice meat-eating customers.
What percentage of your customers identifies themselves as vegetarians or vegans?
According to a survey we completed in 2007, there was about 12% that defined themselves as vegetarian or vegan, and based on my experience somewhere between 5% and 6% of those are vegans.
Are you seeing an increase in vegetarian or vegan purchases?
That’s difficult to pin down because we are an all-you-care-to-eat environment. We put out vegan options with meat analogs right next to meat options. For example we’ll do a stir-fry with chicken and then a tempeh version right next to it. It’s hard to nail down exactly but I know that we do produce more than the 12% combined or the 5% vegans could eat and it all still goes out. We’ll do 300 orders of General Tso’s chicken and then we’ll do about 75 orders of General Tso’s tempeh.
How do you develop your vegetarian and vegan menu?
Since vegetarianism is typical in a lot of ethnic cuisines, I explore different ethnic recipes and spice combinations. Basically try to keep it interesting and try to keep the complete proteins in mind so that the students who maybe are experimenting with vegetarianism for the first time will still get the nutrition that their parents are expecting us to provide. We always try to use complete proteins, be that in the form of beans and rice, combo grains or we use a lot of tofu, seitan and tempeh in the mixes as far as stir fries and pasta bars. We have a vegan option available at every meal. In the morning, it might be our famous tofu scramble or a meat analog in the same dish that we’re offering for the meat eaters. We also have a fairly complete menu of vegetarian options, which would include a lot of the pasta dishes with cheese.
What are some of your most successful vegetarian or vegan dishes?
Some of our most popular items include vegan mushroom ravioli and a lasagna primavera, which is a completely vegetarian lasagna that we sometimes do a vegan version with vegan mozzarella cheese. Follow Your Heart makes a really good one that actually melts. We do ratatouille stuffed portabella mushrooms and a cheesesteak sandwich, which is really popular, where we substitute sliced portabella mushrooms for the beef. We do falafel wraps, which is kind of a take on falafel that we do in a tortilla instead of pita bread. Eggplant curry is very popular as is tofu corfu, which is a take on the chicken version.
What advice would you give to other operators who are struggling with vegetarian or vegan options?
The main thing is to work with culinary staff and educate them in the creative use of spices and herbs in ethnic cuisines. If it’s exciting it doesn’t matter too much if it’s vegetarian or vegan, as long as it tastes good. There are two schools of thought on the use of meat analogs. There are those, which are typically the newbies to vegetarianism—they want to try it out but they miss their hamburgers and chicken wings so we provide those for them. Then there are the other ones who think that kind of vegetarianism is cheating and we have to have options out there for them to choose from as well. Between the two schools of thought, I find that the meat analogs seem to provide the most protein in a palatable way.