‘Shroom for Improvement: The Politics of the Vegetarian Entree
Michael Landrum has been getting some flak lately over his portobello mushroom caps.
Landrum’s Arlington eatery, Ray’s the Steaks, offers a slew of entrées for diners to choose from, including 21 different plates of beef and four kinds of seafood dishes.
But, if you happen to be vegetarian, the ’shrooms, marinated in balsamic vinegar, grilled and plated on a recent evening with eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, grilled onions, and blue cheese, are your one and only option.
As a guy who makes no bones about his meat-centric business, Landrum would hope that the meatless crowd could simply appreciate the effort. “We’re trying here,” he says.
To the contrary, he says, some people “take great offense that someone would dare offer grilled portobello mushroom as a vegetarian option, and that it’s somehow lacking.” Landrum is baffled by this. He notes, “Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, [the portobello] was the most exciting thing in the vegetarian world.”
To a beef-focused entrepreneur like Landrum, the portobello’s burger-like shape and meaty texture probably seems like a no-brainer. To the modern vegetarian diner, however, it seems like an afterthought, what with the farm-to-table movement elevating other produce—such as heirloom squash and purple cauliflower—to newfound prominence.
But appeasing the veg-heads was never really the point, Landrum says. Putting the standalone fungus on his steakhouse menu isn’t about attracting vegetarians at all. To the contrary, it’s about not losing steak eaters.
Landrum explains his single-veggie-entrée strategy like this: Say a family of five walks into his restaurant one night. Mom, dad, and two of the kids are all carnivores. But the third child doesn’t eat meat. If Landrum’s menu doesn’t cater to her tastes in some way, he risks losing the whole group. “I have five family members who otherwise wouldn’t be here,” he says.
There’s a term for this form of minority rule in dining. It’s called the vegetarian veto vote.
It’s an idea that Erica Meier talks up quite often. “It’s just the concept that when a group of people are choosing where to dine out, that the majority rarely rules,” says Meier, executive director of the Takoma Park-based nonprofit animal-rights group Compassion Over Killing. Part of Meier’s job involves lobbying local restaurants to include more meatless options on their menus. Earlier this year, her organization launched a new campaign providing comment cards that diners can casually leave alongside their bill to encourage restaurant managers to expand their menu offerings to include vegetarian and vegan dishes.
On a recent afternoon, Meier was on the phone with the manager of Julia’s Empanadas, asking the kitchen to trade in its traditional egg wash for an egg-free substitute in order to make the eatery’s vegetarian empanadas amenable to patrons who are following an even stricter vegan diet.
Meier takes credit for helping to convince some 35 Baltimore- and D.C.-area restaurants to create or enhance vegan menu options. For her purposes, the vegetarian veto vote is a persuasive part of the overall argument.
It’s not exactly an easy sell. Many chefs and restaurateurs are reluctant to forgo precious menu space on full-size plates of mushrooms and tofu—items traditionally viewed as loss leaders.
“I’ve only got six or so spaces,” says chef Kyle Bailey, “so I want to make sure I cover everything”—everything, that is, except a main course to please the meatless crowd, which his Logan Circle restaurant Birch & Barley entirely lacks. The restaurant does accommodate special orders for vegetarians, but those are rare. According to Bailey, the kitchen fields just one or two requests a night. “Because the majority of people want fish and want meat, we have to make sure that we cater to those people, too,” he says.
The threat of a vegetarian veto doesn’t concern Bailey nearly as much as losing money. “I think there’s also a fear,” he says. “What if you only sell two [vegetarian entrées] a night? That is a failure. That’s a failure rate for any other dish.”
But Meier contends that the numbers are moving in her favor. While only a small segment of U.S. population identify as vegetarian—less than eight million of the more than 300 million Americans—Meier notes that an additional 22.8 million are “vegetarian inclined,” according to a 2008 study sponsored by meatless advocacy magazine Vegetarian Times. This suggests that many omnivores are apt to skip the animal protein when presented with another option.
And the more vegetarian offerings that are readily available, Meier says, the more people who are willing to try them—regardless of whether those people are vegetarian or not.
“The power of using the vegetarian or vegan vote is behind the growing number of people who are looking for these options,” Meier says.
In D.C., in particular, the numbers are even more favorable to Meier’s cause. LivingSocial, the Washington-based daily-deals site, surveyed 20 major cities this past September and concluded that D.C.’s “preference” for vegetarian and vegan fare ranks number one, with eight percent of diners identifying as vegetarian or vegan, compared to just five percent nationwide.
At Eatonville, restaurateur Andy Shallal’s Southern-inspired eatery on 14th Street NW, Meier’s lobbying ultimately culminated in the addition of a vegan jerk-marinated tofu entrée sold for $15. General Manager Michael Woods says he was initially skeptical about how well the meat substitute would fare at a place better known for fried chicken and baby-back ribs. While the tofu is by no means a top-seller—accounting for about five percent of entrée sales at Eatonville this past October, Woods says—the vegan dish isn’t the restaurant’s worst performer, either, even outselling the grilled salmon.
Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly in Dupont Circle, doesn’t need a lobbyist to tell him the stats on vegetarianism in the District. “We have a lot of vegetarian customers and the sales show,” says Bortnick.
Firefly is that rare D.C. restaurant, not labeled as vegetarian-specific, which nonetheless offers not one but two meatless entrées on the menu. “For a long time we just did one and it just kind of came to mind that vegetarians come here and essentially eat the same thing every time but meat eaters have tons of choices,” Bortnick says. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”
On his seasonally rotating menu, Bortnick now generally keeps a starch-based entrée—most recently, a kuri squash and porcini mushroom risotto—and one shining with vegetables, demonstrated by late-season eggplant reuniting with mozzarella and tomato. Sales aren’t awful. Combined, these two items accounted for about 18 percent, or nine percent each, of entrées sales last month, he says.
Other D.C. eateries that offer vegetarian-friendly entrées report similarly steady, if not stellar, sales of those items. At Ripple in Cleveland Park, chef Logan Cox makes agnolotti to showcase the über-seasonal vegetable of the moment, currently pairing beets and olives with tarragon and ricotta. This rotating pasta dish accounts for about 20 percent of overall entrée sales, he says.
At Café Saint-Ex on 14th Street, where a recent kitchen expansion finally allowed chef Billy Klein enough refrigerator room to offer a permanent menu slot for a meatless plate, the sweet corn risotto cakes aren’t just taking up space. Burgers generally account for 50 percent of sales. But of the rest, the cakes represented about 17 percent of sales last month, Klein says.
At Ray’s the Steaks, meanwhile, the dubious portobello dish fares pretty poorly. The restaurant regularly cranks out between 3,000 to 3,500 covers a week, Landrum says, but only eight to 15 of those diners order the vegetarian entrée.
As much as Landrum respects the vegetarian veto, he’s not naïve enough to offer something he can’t afford not to sell. Of the portobello, Landrum says, “I could afford to run at a loss and still recover my costs on alternative uses.” Leftovers provide heft to the mixed-mushroom side dish and eggplants appear in kitchen staff meals, he notes.
“Despite public opinion,” Landrum jokes about his image as an anti-establishment restaurateur, “I think that it’s a necessary service for every restaurant to offer the most hospitable environment for all guests, even the not frequently occurring occasion of a vegetarian diner.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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