Refried beans, soup, risotto, cheese and cornbread — those items may seem like innocuous vegetarian foods, but a lot of restaurants integrate animal fat or meat-based broths into them. (And, in case you didn’t know, many cheeses, including Parmesan, contain rennet, which is cultivated from calf stomach.) If you’re a vegetarian, how do you know what you’re really eating?
For instance, Husk Restaurant’s cornbread is made with bacon fat — that’s why it tastes so good — but the menus at its locations in Greenville, South Carolina, and Nashville read as if it might be vegetarian (those dishes don’t contain bacon crumbles), but at its sites in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, explicitly list bacon on the menu.
Cracker Barrel’s corn muffins contain bacon drippings, but it isn’t mentioned on the menu. On the other hand, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles and Dirty Bird’s cornbreads are free of animal fat. But how is a consumer really supposed to know?
Recently, restaurant transparency has become more common, especially at fast-casual chains. In May 2018, the Food and Drug Administration created a rule stating that restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more fixed locations must disclose calories for “standard menu items listed on menus and menu boards.” Some restaurants have taken the measure further by making allergen matrices and vegetarian/vegan info available to the public through their websites.
Moe’s Southwest Grill does one of the best jobs of fast-casual Mexican chains in offering a section for special diets — vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nutrient-dense and keto. Its customizable vegetarian section mentions that the chain works with a nutritionist, and its cheeses and sour cream are animal rennet-free. Also, it cooks meat and veggies on separate grills. Moe’s chief marketing officer, Verchele Wiggins Roberts, told HuffPost the company introduced the special menus late last year.
“We noticed through web analytics that the Nutrition Calculator was one of the most visited pages on our website, so that tipped us off that there was an opportunity to better show our guests how to use our menu to better fit their lifestyle,” she said. Like Chipotle, it offers organic tofu and more than 20 other vegetarian-friendly items. “At Moe’s, it’s really important for us to be transparent about our ingredients because we want to educate our fans on the ease of dining at Moe’s, no matter what your lifestyle.”
Other Mexican chains are (mostly) doing a good job of catering to vegetarians. Chuy’s refried beans don’t contain pork fat (but some of their cheeses do contain rennet); Qdoba’s website could be more detailed with vegetarian info, but a representative told HuffPost that its cheeses contain no rennet, the tortilla soup is made with vegetable broth and the refried beans do not have pork fat.
Mistakes have led to better transparency.
This level of transparency hasn’t always existed, though. In 2011, Chipotle came under fire when a customer discovered the pinto beans he had been consuming for years had bacon in them; the secret ingredient wasn’t stated on in-store menus. The outrage encouraged Chipotle to transform the beans into a vegetarian dish beginning in 2013.
Thunderdome Restaurant Group, based in Cincinnati, manages more than 30 restaurant locations nationwide, which includes concepts Bakersfield (tacos), The Eagle (fried chicken), Currito (fast-casual burritos) and Krueger’s Tavern. In 2015, a few months after it opened in Cincinnati, Krueger’s offered a polenta cake side (braised fennel and olives, tomato sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano) but left out the fact the sauce contained bacon.
“I don’t know what happened. It might have been an oversight,” Joe Lanni, Thunderdome co-founder, told HuffPost. “We’re pretty sensitive to all that kind of stuff.” (The item remains on the menu and now mentions the bacon.)
Every day, Lanni fields ingredient-based questions from customers, and he and the staff consider customers’ special diets when developing recipes. “This is something we’re thinking about: How are we going to list it on the menu, and how are we going to make sure people know? … People want to know what’s in [their food]. It’s just a reality of doing business today. People are asking for it, and you need to arm your staff with that information. Otherwise, you’re not doing a great job for your guests.”
Not all restaurants fall under the legislation that requires transparency.
New York City chainlet Xi’an Famous Foods believes in transparency. On its website, the restaurant elucidates dishes that are vegetarian and vegan. This is because in 2017, NYC Health passed legislation that requires chains with 15 or more locations to display nutritional info (Xi’an wavers between 14 and 15 locations).
However, right now no legislation exists that would force restaurants to exhibit vegetarian info. “I think restaurant owners have the same amount of obligation to inform guests just as if my grandmother is cooking and telling us what’s in what dish she serves to family,” said Jason Wang, Xi’an’s founder and CEO. “I am not opposed to legislation that requires everyone to disclose info, but I just believe it should be fair and required for all.”
Only a few of Xi’an’s dishes are vegetarian. Its spicy and sour spinach dumplings — stuffed with ground spinach and vermicelli noodles — sounds like it’s vegetarian, but Wang said the sour and spicy dumpling broth is simmered in the same water that its lamb dumplings are cooked in. Wang said adding the meat ingredient to the menu description would make it “verbose,” and he hoped Xi’an’s diners would already be familiar with what’s in the soup.
He thinks one reason restaurants have become more limpid with ingredients is because of competition. “For example, if a burger has less calories and less fat and less sodium than a competitor’s and tastes just as good or better, it’s a competitive edge,” he said.
If non-chains want to comply with providing nutritional info, it generates an obstacle that small businesses might not be able to afford. “Think of the ethnic food establishments,” Wang said. “Will they have enough expertise to follow all of the regulations there are now? What we will see is a decline of these establishments, and that’s a shame.”
How does a diner avoid accidentally ordering an item made with an animal product?
Asking the wait staff questions about the menu seems like the ideal approach, but Wang said it’s more complicated than that. “In this labor market, to have very dedicated servers that know enough about the food is an unspoken challenge that plagues most operators,” he said.
“The simple answer is, have better-trained staff,” Wang added. “The realistic situation is that there’s just difficulties to that, due to qualified labor shortages. A lot of [mistakes] that make it to the news, I believe are due to lack of qualified labor in the economy. Automation helps, such as presenting ingredients’ information to people using technology.”
Lanni says the responsibility should also be shared with the diner. “Some of it has to fall on people who have decided to eat in a certain way,” he said. “If you know you’re a vegetarian, for ethical reasons or something like that, I feel like those people are usually pretty proactive in saying, ‘Hey, I’m a vegetarian. Does this have chicken stock in it?’”