If you want a food service to serve more vegetarian options, you need to understand how a professional kitchen works and the decision-making process for special diet requests. Primarily, the food service director needs to know what percentage of students want vegetarian cuisine and the feasibility of offering vegetarian dishes, as this information is related to delivery systems and profitability.
As part of your plan for requesting additional vegetarian menu options from a college food service operation, you should survey the student body to find out how responsive your campus is to vegetarian cuisine. Don’t forget to include those students who are health conscious, who are lactose intolerant, or who have special religious needs.
Aramark, a major food service provider, recently conducted a survey and determined that 24 percent of college students said finding vegan options on campus was important to them. Remember, one doesn’t have to be vegetarian to partake of vegetarian cuisine. One time, I served as a guest chef at an all-girls’ school, and the young women often chose selections from the vegan menu alongside their meat portions. While the students were not vegetarian, they considered vegetarian cuisine as part of a healthy lifestyle. For this reason, it’s important for the vegetarian students to include other groups in support of their cause. There is strength in numbers. Also, if the movement towards greater vegetarian options is organized and speaks with one voice through an articulate representative, your requests will receive faster and more serious attention.
In addressing vegetarian needs, we must remember the limitations of the food service operators, who must make their food and labor costs work. Asking for too many expensive ingredients and labor-intensive recipes will hinder your request. Food service operators quote a cost per meal for students on meal plans, which is what the college pays the operator under contract.
The vegetarian segment of the menu may be relegated to a “leader item/segment.” The operator doesn’t generate a profit from these items, but they are not in a position where they can lose money by serving cuisine with high monetary or production costs, either. They must at least break even with dishes from this category. You must understand the food service operator’s concerns on the business side of your requests. The larger the vegetarian segment of the student body, the more pressure it places on the food service operator to make a profit off that segment of the menu. Ideally, the cuisine that you request should fall below the price stated in the operator’s contract with the college.
Before approaching your college food service provider, find out if the operation is run independently or by the state or if it is contracted out to a food service provider, such as Aramark, Bon Appetit, Compass, or Sodexho. If the food service is independently or state run, adding vegetarian products to an existing menu is relatively easy because decisions are made on the local level.
If the college contracts with an outside food service provider, there is a corporate structure to work through. Also, the operators already have purchasing contracts with certain food service distributors, so the food service provider can’t make purchases from other parties. Generally, contract food service providers are aware that students request vegetarian foods. Most likely, they are filling some of these requests at other schools they service or have been working on developing vegetarian options. However, your food service operator’s distributor may not carry all vegetarian foods, so you must find out which items are available.
After you’ve researched your college food service provider’s constraints, you should contact the director or associate director of dining services to discuss your concerns. Eventually, the executive chef will be brought in to discuss menu options.
In general, the biggest misconception among food service directors and chefs is that they have to create additional vegetarian menu items with labor-intensive recipes and expensive natural ingredients. What they don’t realize is that most chefs who understand menu dynamics and delivery systems can easily spin off and integrate vegetarian cuisine into their current menu items with the addition—or, in some cases, the deletion—of a few ingredients. Additional ingredients will be needed to transform an existing menu item into a vegan one, and the chef will attempt to limit the number of products and the amount of labor necessary to accomplish the objective.
Therefore, your requests for developing vegetarian menus should focus on two areas. These are vegan center-of-the-plate items (entrées) and vegan desserts because they are the most challenging for chefs to successfully create and execute. Soups, salads, side dishes, and pastas are easy to make vegan. I emphasize vegan in menu development because it covers all categories of vegetarian cuisine, thus simplifying the menu. Appeal to the chefs’ professional operational sense, and they will see the logic behind creating vegan cuisine.
In addition, sell the chef on the practicality of your requests by trying to work off their existing menu and limiting obscure ingredients in his or her recipes. First, analyze the food service menu, and make recommendations for eliminating dairy and eggs in some of the vegetable side dishes and starches. Then, ask for a vegan luncheon entrée or sandwich and a vegan dinner entrée or dessert. Adding a few simple recipes and modifying existing recipes will open up a variety of vegan menu options with minimal effort. Keep your requests simple, and you will succeed.
My company, Eco-Cuisine, Inc., has created a line of vegan food service products that are menu-driven—that is, they can be seamlessly integrated into existing menus. They require minimal skill and labor to produce.
My specialty is converting traditional meat-based dishes into vegan options using Eco-Cuisine’s natural vegan products. Eco-Cuisine is available to assist college vegetarian groups in developing or upgrading vegetarian menu options on their cafeteria’s menus. I can mentor your cause with the chef, educate his or her staff on how to creatively work with vegan cuisine, assist in menu development, and source products within their operational parameters.
Eco-Cuisine has developed a menu-driven food service line of 15 vegan products, including protein foods, broth powders, bakery mixes, and soy puddings. They are ideal for college or university food service operations and available through distributors or by direct shipment. If you have any questions, refer to our website, www.eco-cuisine.com, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ron Pickarski is President and Executive Chef/Consultant of Eco-Cuisine, Inc., A Flexitarian® True to Nature Company. Contact Eco-Cuisine at P.O. Box 17878, Boulder, CO 80308-0878. The company’s phone number is (303) 402-0289, and their fax number is (303) 402-0246.
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