The COVID-19 pandemic put a laser focus on individual health—including the quality of the food we eat. For a lot of people, that’s meant moving to a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Plant-based food trends were gaining momentum well before COVID, driven by increasing awareness of climate change, sustainability, health and animal welfare. Surveys reveal that as many as 6% of U.S. respondents identify as vegan—a 500% increase since 2014.
It seemed like a good time to sit down with the owners of two eateries known for offering compelling vegan and vegetarian fare—and find out how these changes are affecting them.
Chuy Gutierrez, owner of the three Mari Chuy’s Mexican Kitchen locations, has been in the vanguard. Gutierrez gained invaluable experience working as a chef in numerous restaurants under the Silver Legacy and Eldorado brands, handling everything from Japanese sushi to Chinese stir-fry to authentic Italian sauces and deliciously slurp-able oyster bar offerings. He roared with laughter when I suggested that “nimble” and “flexible” might well be his middle names.
“Bringing fresh to our community—that’s what the future holds,” said Gutierrez when asked about the direction of area restaurants. “No microwaving, but real food. Authenticity requires real food … farm to kitchen to table. As restauranteurs, we all talk a good game, but few are really, truly kicking it.”
Serj Johal, from Northern India, is a lifelong vegetarian. His wife, Adriana Marin-Herrera, is from Colombia, a place that’s more meat-centric—yet she is very in touch with her culture’s love of fresh, locally sourced vegetables and authentic cuisine, all of which is on display at their restaurant, Thali.
“Veganism needs to go further,” says Johal. “It should be more holistic, bringing local farms, restaurants and the diner together.”
He and Marin-Herrera believe their mission is to achieve synergy.
“We want to create a circle, from the local or regional farm to our restaurant and back to the diner and community, building something that benefits everyone at every point along the way,” Marin-Herrera said.
People who have come to veganism comparatively recently, like myself, may find themselves disappointed by the limited choices at many restaurants. The actual menus can make life difficult, with incomplete or even inaccurate descriptions. Add poorly trained staff or a kitchen that’s not prepared for vegan requests, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Both Mari Chuy’s and Thali offer a variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes that are appealing on all levels—not the same-old salads and sides—that fit their brands seamlessly. According to Gutierrez, staff training is crucial, too: Servers need to quickly and accurately answer customer queries about menu options and accommodations.
When asked which of his dishes may best satisfy the plant-based diner, Gutierrez immediately responded: “Nopales! Ensalada de nopales (cactus) is perfect for the vegan or vegetarian, but we also have burrito de verduras and the crazy-good Midtown veggie plate.”
The same question is arguably easier to answer for the owners of Thali, since all of the restaurant’s seasonal cuisine is vegetarian. Johal noted: “Saag is probably one of our customers’ favorites.” Marin-Herrera added that they were making the classic Indian dish by riffing on whatever fresh, locally sourced greens are available—including collards.
The owners of both restaurants said that community is important to them.
“I’m a family guy,” said Gutierrez. “Family is everything for me—and the Reno community is an extension of my family. I’ll look after my community, just as I would family.”
After a brutal couple of years for restaurants, they may be leaving a lot of money on the table by not offering vegetarian/vegan options. That’s one reason why fast-food and casual-dining chains are introducing more plant-based options. Even the meat-centric Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain has added vegan options like roasted broccoli steaks.
Johal and Marin-Herrera noted that Thali’s customer base has been growing, including a 50% increase recently.
“Kids who’ve gone vegetarian and vegan are bringing their parents in, to show the folks that eating healthfully isn’t just salads,” Johal said with a laugh.
Of course, some people take vegan/vegetarian dining a little too far, becoming less plant-based customers and more like the food police. Johal mentioned a few who insisted on “inspecting” the kitchen to make sure that there was no cross-contamination, for example.
That’s not to say restaurants don’t need to take proper precautions with their vegan/vegetarian customers in mind.
“If those looking for plant-based choices can relax and bend a little bit, they’re going to get a clean, vegetarian meal. They’ll be safe,” Gutierrez said. “There won’t be any cross contamination. That’s true at all the locations—no exceptions. That goes for gluten-free people, too.”
Johal and Marin-Herrera showed me an online review that just might encapsulate the matter. It read: “I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, and I thought the food was incredible.” They believe this illustrates just how the marketplace is changing. After all, if Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone vegan, can the rest of us be that far behind?