Restaurants from NYC to small-town Texas are shifting to plant-based menus - and customers can't get enough
- While some restaurants just tried to survive the pandemic, others used it as a transition period.
- During that time, eateries from New York City to Midland, Texas, switched to plant-based menus.
- "This is the way things are going," Los Angeles restaurant owner Mark Verge said. "This is the future."
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
When Michelin-rated New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park announced to the world it was reopening after its pandemic closure as plant-based, there was both admiration and condemnation. While steadfast fine-dining foodies and pundits forecasted the restaurant's switch to vegan food could fail, a different reality has played out: The restaurant is consistently booked solid and as of June, reportedly had a 15,000-person waitlist.
Eleven Madison Park isn't the only restaurant to emerge post-pandemic as plant-based. In places you might least expect, chefs and restaurant owners have used pandemic closures as an opportunity to reinvent their businesses to reflect their own values - as well as not only meeting plant-focused customer demand, but driving it.
In a place like New York with a captive plant-foodie audience and a mecca of successful vegan eateries, a shift to a plant-based restaurant is easily palatable. But for Brew St. in Midland, Texas, a small town five hours west of Dallas, reopening as a primarily vegan restaurant was a major risk.
Wife and husband duo Marcy and Carlos Madrid took over ownership of Brew St. during its pandemic closure in summer 2020. As the Madrids hired back staff and got ready to reopen with the existing familiar menu, the couple had a serious reality check.
Carlos Madrid recalls telling friends that - despite the couple being plant-based for nearly five years, a choice prompted for health reasons - they were going to keep the same menu inherited by the prior owners.
"When we told [our friends] we were going to do the same traditional food, they told us: 'But that's not who you are, so how can you sell something you are not yourselves?'" he said. "But there was a real fear of losing patrons.
"The concept of eliminating meat and dairy, especially here, is still new. But we settled on the fact that we need to do this for the community."
In September 2020, Brew St. reopened as Midland's first plant-based restaurant, and the couple says the community support and interest has been immense. Some of their most popular items include their cinnamon rolls, other baked goods, and street tacos, which use Beyond Meat's beef product blended with spices and veggies.
Brew St. does carry a few meat-based proteins as add-ons, and the couple says that having these helps with inclusivity considering how fresh the concept is in Midland. It also helps draw people in who might have otherwise not even considered or tried vegan food.
For Carlos and Marcy Madrid, Brew St. is more than just a restaurant: It's a vehicle to help improve quality of life, and even save lives.
Transformations for restaurants like Brew St. come at a time when people are increasingly recognizing the link between the consumption of animal products, health, and disease.
In 2015, processed meat was classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, the same category as cigarettes, and there's an increasing contingent of doctors and health practitioners adopting the "food as medicine" mantra and treatment plan, with the key ingredient being a plant-based lifestyle. There's also compelling research that points to plant-based diets as a way to prevent heart disease, the leading cause of death in America.
Another factor prompting consumers' growing interest in plant-forward eating is the catastrophic impact industrial-scale animal agriculture is having on the environment.
A study from Oxford University showed that global farmland use could be reduced by almost 80% by switching to just growing crops rather than producing animal protein. Livestock production also accounts for about 18% of greenhouse gases emissions each year. Many experts agree that shifting to a plant-based diet is a critical step toward a healthier environment.
Pandemics are also linked to animal-human intermingling, and scientists believe the next breeding ground could be in factory farms - it's these industrial-scale facilities that produce a majority of the meat and dairy that ends up on American plates.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a contributing factor that led UK-based French chef Alexis Gauthier to reopen his fine-dining Gauthier Soho in London as fully vegan. After closing in March of 2020, Gauthier grappled with the pandemic as a perfect example of humans mingling with nature, and said that as a species, "we have crossed a boundary."
"We are sick, the planet is sick and we have to change the course of things," Gauthier said. "I said to myself, 'I have a duty to do this. I am not going to profit from animals; I am going to try to inspire.'"
Gauthier had spent years cementing Gauthier Soho as an esteemed Michelin-starred restaurant known for its classic French fare, rooted in meat- and dairy-centric dishes. While over the last several years Gauthier, who became vegan in 2015, started to experiment and introduce plant-based dishes to his menu, the pre-pandemic Gauthier Soho consisted of traditional meat- and dairy-based French cuisine.
He knew reopening as a fully vegan restaurant would be a risk, but he took the jump anyway.
"It was a huge gamble because Gauthier Soho was seen as a temple of French gastronomy," Gauthier said. "But now, we interpret all the French dishes. It's still French classic gastronomy, but plant-based, and people love it. I am proof you can do this. The demand is out there, and we can't even accommodate all the demand."
Customer demand was something that the former 2 Guys Pizza and Ribs in Hendersonville, North Carolina had top of mind when they contemplated making a drastic shift. After 14 years of serving ribs, pizza and wings, owners Melody and John Crawford decided they would reopen from their pandemic closure as a vegan-first restaurant.
Inspired by their 26-year-old son who influenced them and introduced them to related documentaries, they reopened in June 2021 with their new name: "2 Guys Pizza - Planet Family Food and Brews." The owners did keep dairy cheese on the menu for now to try to make accommodations and help get people in the door, since the concept is new in their town.
"I think I put my town in shock," Melody Crawford said, noting that while they have lost customers that came for the wings and ribs, they've gained the same amount of new ones. "People come in and try the food and say 'Oh my god, it's not meat, and not dairy' - people are just not aware because they don't know. We're just giving people an option, and education, and letting them decide for themselves."
Seattle-based El Borracho, which owns three locations across Washington with its flagship locale at Pike Place Market in Seattle, had its eyes set on going all vegan. The business reopened after its pandemic shutdown with an entirely plant-based menu across all locations.
"I have always dreamed of having a 100% vegan restaurant, but upon opening in 2012, I felt it was quite risky from a business perspective," owner Kittie Davidovich told Insider. "During the pandemic, plant-based eating increased exponentially in popularity worldwide. It was like someone flipped a switch and plant-based eating became mainstream."
Davidovich said the reception to the new plant-based menu has been very positive.
"Interestingly, at least half of our customers are omnivores who are open to the idea that they don't need to include meat at every meal to be satiated," Davidovich said.
In Los Angeles, Margo's Santa Monica, a go-to restaurant for comfort food and prolific cocktails, also decided to make the plant-based switch. During the pandemic closure in 2020, owner Mark Verge was sitting down with new bar manager and restaurant partner Michael Misetich, who has been meat-free for 10 years, strategizing about the reopening. That's when Misetich blurted out: "I think we should change to all plant-based food."
Despite the existing menu being meat- and dairy-focused, and Verge being an omnivore himself, he was immediately on board.
What followed was Margo's executive chef experimenting in the kitchen to ensure the plant-based dishes would appeal to all food-preference types. The restaurant, currently serving dinner and brunch, boasts fully vegan fare with items like Charred Eggplant, Impossible Sliders, Chilaquiles, and PB&J Pancakes topped with peanut butter sauce and a coconut whipped cream.
The cocktails, which are a focal point of Margo's, are also all vegan, like the whisky sour that uses aquafaba - the liquid that comes from chickpeas - instead of egg whites to achieve a frothy top.
Misetich said for a few of the long-time customers, the change was challenging at first. But people overwhelmingly love the new menu and "increasingly, people are trickling in and it's getting bigger and better everyday," he said.
Margo's is serving as a test kitchen, Verge says, and he and his team plan on expanding the newly minted plant-based Margo's to new locales in the future, while also adding popular vegan items to other restaurants and bars Verge owns in the LA area.
For restaurant owners like Verge, tackling the global issue of meat consumption starts on a local level - and sometimes, even an individual one.
"When people aren't vegan or plant-based, or unsure about the food, I tell them, 'Just try it, just try it,' and when they do, they love it," Verge said. "This is the way things are going. This is the future."