Feature Article - October 2007
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Food For Thought

Simple Menu Changes for Special Diets

By Stacy St. Clair

Growin' veggie

Just a decade ago, the concession industry looked upon vegetarians as well-meaning pests. They challenged menus, questioned buying practices and doubted venues' commitment to their patrons. All these years later, though, their work has paid off. Concession operators across the country are now mindful of providing meatless offerings.

"People think it's just a vegetarian issue, but it's not," Soy Happy's McCloy said. "There are a lot of diverse people that are interested in eating these things, for cultural reasons, religious issues, people with high cholesterol and other health problems."

Despite the advancements, improvements can still be made. The vegetarian population has doubled since 1994, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Roughly 5 percent of the population—that's about 15 million Americans—consider themselves vegetarians. Teenage Research International studies also show 25 percent of teenage girls think meatless diets are cool. Even if they eat animal products, these young women are not averse to vegetarian meals or ideals.

As vegetarianism becomes more mainstream, patrons won't be content to settle for veggie burgers or soft pretzels. They want the same freedoms as carnivores: the option of satisfying a craving at a concession stand, instead of simply settling for the one item on the menu they can eat, or relying on home-brought foods.

"Don't underestimate the power of the phenomenon of the 'Vegetarian Veto,'" said John Cunningham, the Vegetarian Resource Group's consumer resource manager. "When a group goes out—even if only one person is vegetarian—they won't go to a place that doesn't have a vegetarian option."

For example, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia was recently rated the vegetarian-friendliest stadium in the country, thanks to its veggie hoagies and vegan hot dogs. It's an ironic twist for a city famous for its cheesesteaks, but they've got that one covered, too. Phillies fans also can purchase faux-meat cheesesteaks.

San Francisco's AT&T Park finished second with its portobello sandwiches, veggie sushi and garlic fries. Unsurprisingly, McCloy would like other sporting venues to emulate the creative menus in both parks.

"You can always count on a veggie burger being available," she said. "It seems to be the lowest common denominator."

McCloy suggests more concession stands offer more diverse items, such as soy cheese pizzas or vegetarian chili. Salads and roasted veggies also would be a welcome touch.

However, vegan advocates realize that the average park district concession stand can't offer vegetarian sushi or grilled portobellos. In that case, they urge recreation managers to put a few simple offerings on the menu. Fresh fruit, soy hot dogs or garden burgers are usually a good place to start. If you serve coffee, consider making soy milk available for java drinkers.

When selecting meatless items, it's usually best to go with vegan options—foods that omit all animal products, including eggs and dairy. It will reach the largest audience, as well as be an option for patrons who are lactose-intolerant.

Given the strong vegetarian grapevine, meatless options may help facilities draw visitors. If the past decade has taught us anything, it's that they are both a vocal and an appreciative group.

"If you offer good vegetarian options, you'll get very loyal customers," Cunningham said. "They will come back, and they will tell other vegetarians. Vegetarians are the best word-of-mouth advertising."