Africa Travel Week

Catering for vegetarians

Meat eater, Jeremy Smith explores three ways how the hospitality sector could get vegetarian food right.

I am not a vegetarian. I’ve tried and failed to sustain my abstinence for more than a few weeks on many occasions. For what it is worth, I probably eat meat once a fortnight, and fish once a week. My Achilles heel is cheese. Moving to France a few months ago has not helped me here.

However, because I am in the process of discovering my new home, I have done a lot more eating out, all in the name of research. And it has made me think a lot more about how the hospitality sector continually gets its approach to vegetarianism wrong. (And no this isn’t a clichéd dig at how France doesn’t do vegetarian food. Quite the opposite. My wife has eaten better here than in London).

But whether in France, the UK or anywhere else, there are some simple ways that our sector could improve its approach to supporting plant-based diets. Doing this would do wonders for our impact on animal welfare, biodiversity, and the climate crisis, to say nothing of the health of our guests.

ONE – When I am researching a place for my wife and I to eat, I don’t look at the meat dishes on the menu. I look at the vegetarian options. I like everything, I’ll be fine. But if there is no veg option, or it is something unimaginative like the dreaded mushroom risotto or penne arrabiata, you’ve lost our custom. From 2006 to 2016, the number of people adopting a vegan diet increased by 360% in the UK. Not all of them are married to another Vegan. Think how many couples or groups of people are going out for a meal, or choosing a hotel, where one of them doesn’t eat some or all of meat, fish or dairy.

TWO – Just because someone doesn’t eat meat, it doesn’t mean they miss it, and need some sort of meat replacement service as the centrepiece of the meal. Vegetarians like vegetables. Nothing makes my partner happier than a plate of vegetables. And if meat eaters find that weird, imagine how weird vegetarians find what we choose to put on our plates.

If all your vegetarian meals contain soy or a similar fake meat protein, not all vegetarians and vegans will like them. (They can also be bad for the environment).  A lot of French restaurants seem to get this, as Assiette des Legumes is often offered, and has always been imaginative and delicious.

How easy would it be to put such a dish on every menu, combining many of the vegetables used as sides for the meat dishes, and thus stopping vegetarians from feeling even more marginalised than they do when they have to ask the waiter or waitress for a special request.

THREE – On the subject of ‘special’ – growing research shows that plant-based dishes sell much better if you don’t label them as Vegetarian or separate them off into a vegetarian section. According to research by the Better Buying Lab, a Hilton-supported initiative by the World Resources Institute, listing dishes in a separate section of a menu and labelling the section “vegetarian” made meat-eaters 56% less likely to order vegetarian meals.

Or adopt the approach of restaurants that focus on the vegetables in the description of the tastes – there are after all far more nuances to the flavours of vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds and other plants, than there are to the few animals we eat as meat. Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed a 25% increase in people choosing vegetables when indulgent labels were used to describe them.

If we are serious in our efforts to develop a transformative tourism industry, then helping our guests transform their eating habits should be an easy win.  Your menu isn’t a lecture in sustainable choices. It’s a place to show people new – and better – ways to eat.

Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith is the editor of sustainable tourism news site Author of recently published Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018). As well as writing a fortnightly blog for WTM's responsible tourism website, he works with responsible and sustainable travel businesses, developing their communications, brands, marketing and digital & social media strategy. He is co-author of Rough Guides' only guidebook dedicated to responsible tourism, Clean Breaks - 500 New Ways to See the World. Before that he was editor of The Ecologist, the world's longest-running environmental magazine.