Sunday, August 17, 2014

Don't Say the V Word: A Businessman's Guide to Veganism

"Is this vegan?" 
"Is this vegetarian?" 
"I can't have dairy, can I have this?" 
"Is this made using animal products?" 
As a restaurant owner, beauty products dealer, or even a retailer you might hear these questions. What do these people mean? What do they want? You do an internet search only to hear conflicting ideas and people arguing about morality and climate change. You just want a straight answer: how can serve my customers?

My goal with this post is to answer that question, straight up, no frills, and from a business perspective. I was raised vegetarian, and have been vegan for over two years now. I have also been a small business owner, and worked in the food service business for more years than I care to remember. I started Veg Out Huntsville in order to help local vegans find local places to eat and to shop, but found myself working with businesses a lot, asking them questions. To my surprise, most businesses were very friendly and eager to work with me, even adding new items to their menu to accommodate. This made me, and a lot of other vegans, very happy. 

You might think that vegans and plant-based dieters are just a small minority, not worth catering to. However, current trends show that Americans are eating fewer and fewer animal products and more people are becoming vegan. This trend shows no signs of slowing down, so you might want to hop on board now. Also, I always quip that a vegan customer is worth two omnivores because we eat ALL THE TIME. Of course vegans are big foodies! Who else would decide to save the world by eating?

But in order to serve vegan food (or products) you have to know what the word means. Despite the attitude some people have, you aren't born knowing what "vegan" means, and whenever I was served something not vegan, it was always on accident. My main focus of this article is for restaurant owners, but I also provide content relevant for makers of beauty products or clothiers as well.

Serving vegans doesn't have to be difficult, expensive, or confusing. So, let's discuss words, and get this cleared up!

Why Are You Living Like This Anyway?

The question of "why?" is a very personal one, and no two people will answer it the same. People eat and live vegan or vegetarian for diverse reasons such as health, animal rights, environmental concerns, and/or humanitarian concerns. You can write whole books about the reasons. For our business purposes, it really doesn't matter, so for this article we're leaving the debates up to the internet and the mass amounts of literature available. Just be aware that their are many reasons, and even strict vegans don't always agree with each other.

Defining the Differences

There are three main types of "non-meat-eaters", Pescatarians, Vegetarians, and Vegans. Although you can often serve them the same food, they are very different from each other, and shouldn't be mistaken for each other -- otherwise you'll end up with a lot of unhappy customers.

Pescatarian: Simply put, these are the fish eaters. Pescatarians don't eat mammals or birds, but they do eat fish and seafood. Gelatin is a maybe, depending on the individual. I won't be talking about them much, you won't often hear this word, and most pescatarians will confusingly call themselves vegetarians, but I wanted to introduce the word.
Non-food products: Sometimes pescatarians may not wish to buy leather.

Vegetarian: These are the people who don't eat meat. This means no beef, chicken, fish, lobster, llama, buffalo, or kangaroo. If it's in the animal kingdom, they don't eat it. Vegetarians do eat other animal products like eggs and milk. The word vegetarian is more familiar to people, and more socially accepted by America than the word vegan.
Non-food products: Vegetarians usually will not buy leather or fur, but will buy wool, feathers, and beeswax. They usually are looking for beauty products with No Animal Testing.

Vegan: These are the people that don't eat ANY animal products. They don't eat meat and also remove milk, eggs, gelatin, and often honey from their diets. The inventor of the word 'vegan' also did not consume alcohol, but not many vegans follow this, in fact many are voracious consumers of beer.
Wait, honey?: Honey is a contentious issue, even among vegans. However, if you see a product marked 'certified vegan' in a store, it will NOT contain honey. Vegans don't consume animal products and by definition this includes honey. There are those vegans who do eat honey, but never mark a product 'vegan' and put honey in it. Instead, if you have customers asking for vegan items, ask if they eat honey, and then point out items.
Non-food products: If someone comes to your business shopping for vegan items they mean it in the strictest sense. Vegans don't wish to buy leather, wool, beeswax, feathers, gelatin, or any milk derivative. They will also be looking for that No Animal Testing label.

 So that seemed simple, right? Unfortunately it does get more complicated, but I'll do my best to untangle things.

It's Just a Little Poison - Contamination Issues

 Something no vegetarian or vegan ever wants to hear is: "It only has a little meat in it." You can't have 'just a little' of a product you are avoiding; it doesn't work that way. You don't tell a person with peanut allergies, "oh, it just has a little peanut oil in it," so you don't mark something as vegetarian and then put chicken broth in it.

Omnivores produce an especially acidic digestive fluid in order to digest meat. If you no longer eat meat, your body no longer produces these. Even a small amount of meat, besides emotionally hurting your customer, can physically hurt them as well. My only experience featuring a small amount of meat left me sick for the rest of the night.

Your customer may be vegan for allergy reasons. In this case accidental contamination becomes an issue, too. I can't tell you how many times I have been served a meal with a small shred of cheese that has fallen into the plate. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but to a vegan (especially someone that has allergies) it might as well be a chunk of arsenic. If you own or work at a restaurant, you know contamination is a big issue to keep bacteria in check. You should already be keeping your meat and dairy separately, so take it seriously and make sure the same utensils are not used, and hands are washed after handling meat & dairy products.

The Hidden Ingredients

"So I just have to make sure I don't use meat or milk or eggs in my food, right?" a few other items. The bizarre fact about our culture is that items marked non-dairy contain milk in them. 
"Wait, what?" 
Check the ingredients for a 'non-dairy' creamer and the first item will be milk powder. While this might be acceptable for someone allergic to lactose, it's not acceptable for a vegan...or even someone allergic to another part of milk, such as casin. This is the place where serving a vegan can seem to become a nightmare. But don't panic yet, let's just take this a step at a time.

There are tricks to reading a label. Veganism and vegetarianism are more popular than ever. Your first step when reading a label is to look at see if it is already nicely marked 'vegan' or 'vegetarian' for you. If it is, great! You're good to go. If not, that doesn't necessarily mean it isn't vegan friendly. Next thing to check are the allergy warnings, which can be found at the bottom of the ingredients list in bold. Does it say Contains: milk? You don't need to look any further; it's not vegan friendly. So what if you've perused the label and can't find any of these helper words? Well, you could try the simple approach and try other company that is more open about their ingredients, or you can check the ingredients one by one. It's not as scary as you think.

The list of ingredients to avoid, although not intuitive, is actually not that long. My grandmother managed to figure it out and serve us vegan food made from scratch. Obviously anything that lists meat, milk or eggs as an ingredient is a no-no. Here's the list of hidden animal product ingredients to look for, and remember these ingredients are just a likely to be hiding in orange juice, as in margarine:

Food Products, Non-Vegetarian:
Carmine, Cochineal, Carminic Acid (red dye from beetles) 
Gelatin (from boiled body parts)
Isinglass (a form of gelatin made from fish)
Lard (we're in the south, do I need to explain this?)
Rennet, Rennin (calf stomach enzyme, only used in cheese)

Food Products, Non-Vegan:
Albumen (usually derived from egg whites)
Bee Pollen
Bone Char (often used in white sugar)
Carmine, Cochineal, Carminic Acid (red dye from beetles)
Casein, Caseinate, Sodium Caseinate (milk derivative, often found in so called 'non-dairy' cheese and milks)
Gelatin (from boiled body parts)
Isinglass (a form of gelatin made from fish)
Lactose (milk derivative) 
Lard (we're in the south, do I need to explain this?)
Monoglycerides, Glycerides (derived from animal fat)
Whey (milk product) 

Cosmetic Products
 Note: There are people who eat vegan, and don't buy vegan, but if a customer is looking at your beauty products for vegan labels, they mean that in the strictest sense. Unfortunately, you'll have a harder time finding out if your ingredients are animal sourced, for instance caprylic acid may be derived from milk, or it may be veggie derived; you'll have to check with your supplier.
Albumen (usually derived from egg whites)
Allantoin (derived from urine)
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (may be animal derived)
Ambergris (from whale intestines)
Bee Pollen
Bone Meal
Caprylic Acid (may be sourced from milk)
Carmine, Cochineal, Carminic Acid (red dye from beetles)
Collagen (usually animal derived)
Gelatin (from boiled body parts)
Glycerin, Glycerol (may be animal derived)
Isinglass (a form of gelatin)
Keratin (protein from ground up bones, hooves, and feathers) 
Lanolin, Lanolin Acids (derived from wool)
Monoglycerides, Glycerides (derived from animal fat)

Whew! That was the hard part - it's smooth sailing from here on in. Now we just have to look at advertising tactics to make sure your customers know what you have to offer.

The Word Game: Advertising

So you have a vegan or vegetarian product. Maybe you made a special one, or discovered that a product you were already serving could be made veg friendly with only a slight alteration. We vegans love to see that vegan word slapped on everything, but from a businessperson's standpoint, that's not all you're going to want to do.

Standard advertising tactics apply. Alert the media! This may sound melodramatic, but you do want to advertise vegan/vegetarian products, same as you would any other product. 

For an example, let's look at Burger King. Not well known for vegetarianism, however they serve one of the best veggie burgers I've ever had. Did you know that? Most vegetarians I talk to don't know either. If the veggie burger is listed on the menu at all, it's hidden over in the corner menu to the side of the counter with the Icees. Apparently, the Burger King thinks vegetarianism is some type of underground railroad that spreads information among it's followers. 7.3 Million Americans are strict vegetarian, while 22.8 million more eat a more loose 'Vegetarian-Inclined' diet. That's a lot of customers BK is missing out on by hiding their veggie burger. Don't be like BK...seriously their mascot is terrifying anyway... The main point being, vegans and vegetarians are individuals, not a collective. You can't tell one and expect the whole city to know.

BK Storm Trooper, DragonCon 2007, WanderPhoto

What may come as a surprise to business owners, it's not only vegans that will buy vegan products. There's also people with food allergies - milk, eggs, and meats are common allergens. Maybe someone's on a diet for the week. Many people just want to eat lighter on occasion. I know plenty of people that just don't like red meat. If you offer a quinoa salad that just happens to be vegan, many other folks like quinoa, too. 

Again, standard advertising tactics apply: pump in as many buzz words as you can. Let's say Johnny has a milk allergy. He's just learning about it, and he's not looking for the word 'vegan'. He's looking for the words, 'dairy-free'. Slap that on there, too. By the time we're done looking at all the possibilities, your burrito is not only vegan, it's vegetarian, dairy-free, egg-free, cholesterol-free, and maybe even low-fat! You're reaching a much wider customer base now.

Whoa, that's a lot of words cluttering a menu! Yes, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that all these words should be put on a simple menu (unless you are using symbols), but definitely push them when advertising on social media or individual billboards. 

 To Sum Up...

I've thrown a lot of ideas at you very quickly, so let's just briefly sum up.

  • Vegetarians don't eat meat or meat products. They usually want products with "No Animal Testing" and no leather or gelatin.
  • Vegans don't eat (or use) any products made by animals or derived from animals including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. They usually won't buy wool, beeswax, or other animal products
  • Eating honey is a contentious issue, even in the vegan community, but to keep it safe DON'T mark products vegan if they contain honey -- DO ask your customers if they eat/use honey and point out your options to them if they do
  • There's no such thing as "a little meat". If it contains meat AT ALL it's not vegetarian.
  • There's no such thing as "a little milk". If it contains animal products AT ALL it's not vegan
  • Beware of contamination between ingredients while cooking or storing food products
  • Check labels on every ingredient before declaring an item vegan or vegetarian
  • Advertise your vegan/vegetarian products same as you would any other product
  • Open your products up to everyone, and don't just use the word 'vegan' -- use other words like 'dairy free' and 'egg free'
I hope I have been of some help to you! If you have any further questions, I would love to help you out! Contact me by commenting here, or through Twitter, Facebook, or even Instagram.

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