Are You Still Giving Your Customers The ‘V’ Sign?

With an increase in the change in eating habits, and the popularity of dishes that contain neither meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, with vegetarian and plant-based eating gaining popularity, are restaurateurs future-proofing their relationships with their diners?.

With an increase in the change in eating habits, and the popularity of dishes that contain neither meat, fish, eggs, or dairy, with vegetarian and plant-based eating gaining popularity, are restaurateurs future-proofing their relationships with their diners?

Marc Bertorelli, business development manager for hospitality accountancy specialists Paperchase discusses the future of the ‘V’ sign with Jon Spiteri, who is currently introducing plant-based specialist, Impossible Foods, into the UK.

Marc: In the past the ‘V’ sign on a menu was a beacon of hope for those seeking meat free dishes, which often turned into complete despair, when seeing what option was on offer? Historically, have we as a nation been slow to respond to new eating habits?

Jon: With younger adopters changing their eating habits to save the planet, and others deciding to eat less meat for health reasons, this change in eating habit is gaining popularity. However, we have to ask if restaurateurs are serving those diners well, providing balanced menus to support all these new lifestyle eating choices, and in the process future proofing their relationships with their customers.

Back in the day, the ‘V’ sign really only communicated ‘this is your dish’ or ‘this is all you can eat here’. Asking what the vegetarian option is and looking for The ‘V’ sign was then seen as some sort of culinary pariah, resulting in some operators chucking a Linda McCartney veggie sausage into the fryer when a vegetarian order came into the kitchen.

Many did lack vision back then, but now there are many exciting new restaurants specialising in vegetarian or plant-based dining, however across the board, we could try harder.

Marc: I’m Italian and of course back home restaurant menus are bursting with dishes that contain neither fish nor meat. It’s just how Italians eat. Why is it so different in the UK?

Jon: I think generally we have been slow to respond. In the UK, post war, we were brought up on a diet of ‘meat and two veg’ which has become part of our British food vernacular, where veg was always seen as a ‘bit on the side’ and not the main act. Veg was something to fill us up because there wasn’t much meat available post war, and many foods were still rationed.

When the travel boom started in the 60’s and we ventured to Mediterranean countries on package holidays, I can remember the look on the faces of holiday makers in Italy, Greece, Spain, Turkey, when offered a plate of vegetables, looking aghast and mouthing ‘where’s the meat’, until we tasted those dishes. Now, we don’t blink an eye, and dine on the most wonderful dishes of simple vegetables, simply prepared, with not a mention of the option for our vegetarian or vegan friends.

This of course is the Mediterranean diet, which is generally considered one of the healthiest, with those countries eating a generous and ‘healthy’ number of vegetables. In some parts of the world this may be considered poor food, however in many countries everyone eats the same foods and has the same diet, because that is the local cuisine, and many contain excellent dishes that are just made with vegetables.

Marc: Things are changing and plant-based diets and vegetarianism is not going away. Even now, I’m sure many of us meat and fish eaters have the odd dish in the week that contains neither, just because we fancy it. As an industry, what should we be doing to futureproof our customers?

Jon: The whole concept of meat and two veg could be the culprit. There are plenty of delectable vegetable dishes around Europe, but they are not generally presented in the way we are conditioned to recognise them.

A change in attitude is required to foods on menus, with more inclusive choices, including a balanced choice of dishes, with or without meat and fish, dishes that are plant based, dairy free, and gluten free. Having that balanced choice without pigeon holing would be refreshing, and who knows, we all may wish to change our eating preferences at some point when dining, just because it tastes really good!

Now, there are those that do this very well, but there are those who are not doing so well. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we just have to be a little more revolutionary in our attitude to ‘free from’ foods. But be aware, this change is accelerating, and every 60 seconds someone in the UK is changing their diet in order to save the planet, or to be more ethical.

Marc: In other fields technology leads, so why not the food industry? By ignoring science, are we condemned to be left trailing behind? Can Cell-Cultured meat and fish be used in exactly the same way as farm reared products? Does it have the same texture and the same taste? In time will the average consumer be grilling 3D printed steaks.

Jon: Meat substitutes have been around for a while, whether they are produced from soya protein, made from plant-based materials, cell-cultured from tissue taken from a living animal instead of on a farm, consumers have the choice to select an alternative to conventional meat. These products have the potential to be healthier, ethical, and better for our planet, whilst addressing the substantial global problems of the environmental impact of meat production, animal welfare, food security and human health.

Marc: So, what is the answer? What can restaurateurs do to futureproof their relationships with their clients?

Jon: The answer is balance! Forget the ‘V’ sign and construct a well-balanced menu that includes dishes that contain meat and fish, along with cultured meats and meat substitutes, offer vegetable only dishes, feature dairy free, and so on. This way you introduce new dishes to diners who may not normally pick a ‘free from’ dish and be introduced to something new. Whilst today you may be a confirmed carnivore, you too may choose on occasions to try something new. Our industry needs to get on board with this and cannot be left behind.

We must be leaders in this change, reporting our findings, and presenting our new products to our customers. This is the answer, and we can all participate as pioneers and educators, as the public are looking to us for inspiration.

Marc: Thank you, Jon, it was a pleasure to talk with you.

About Jon Spiteri
Jon Spiteri has over 45 years’ experience of working in and setting up restaurants and bars, both in England and abroad. In the seventies these included Parsons and Joe Allens, also Peppermint Park and Coconut Grove where he was Maître D’. During the eighties he worked in the Soho Brasserie, L’Escargot, Le Caprice and Café Pacifico. Restaurant set-ups he was responsible for include Pappergalli’s Pizza Restaurant, Smith’s Restaurant and the Café Casbar.

In 1992 he opened The French House Dining Room with partners Fergus Henderson and Margot Clayton. Subsequently he and Fergus opened St John Restaurant in Clerkenwell. He was also involved in the running of the Cow Dining Room and the set-up of Lucky Seven for Tom Conran. Other names that Jon has been associated with include: The Champagne Bar at St Pancras, St Pancras Grand Restaurant, The Champagne Bar at Westfield, the National Portrait Gallery Restaurant, Richard Corrigan Restaurants and is co founder of Sessions Arts Club.