“I’ve been dating a vegan woman for seven years. Once I sat with her in a restaurant and said, ‘What’s this, Tal? There are just two vegan entrees and neither of them is tasty. What should we do?’ She said, ‘Listen — you don’t understand. Vegan Friendly changed my life. For years I had nowhere to eat. You’ve been vegan for only a year-and-a-half, so you have no idea what it was like before. It was that way in all the restaurants.”
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So says Omri Paz, the founder of the non-profit organization Vegan Friendly. Within a short time, Vegan Friendly has made dozens of restaurants accessible to Israel’s vegan community, and soon products in every pantry and on every supermarket shelf will have a Vegan Friendly seal.
At first, Vegan Friendly directed its PR efforts toward omnivores and the curious, using videos, panel discussions about veganism in the family and Gary Yourofsky’s lecture “The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear.” Within a week, its Facebook page had 5,000 likes.
Paz recalls that during his first few months of being vegan, he managed to “convert” more than 100 people to veganism via the speech. “After a month, many of them admitted that they had reverted. When I tried to figure out why, I kept getting the same answers. They didn’t know what to eat in restaurants. They had to read all the ingredients of every product in the supermarket, and it got to be too much for them. I told myself that the next thing I would do would be to create an infrastructure that would provide a soft landing for anyone who wanted to go vegan.”
After establishing a virtual community of 30,000 long-time vegans and recent converts to the vegan lifestyle who still remember what pizza tastes like, the next step was to approach restaurants. “We wanted to play on the restaurants’ court, with their own tools. They want money, they want it to be worth their while, so we decided to show them how to do it. We told them: ‘We’ve gone over your menu, and the only thing you have to do is add an appetizer, a sandwich and an entree that are appropriate for the vegan community. If you do that, you’ll get a ton of exposure.”
It worked. After marking 70 restaurants in Tel Aviv and the center of the country as vegan-friendly, they turned to the restaurant chains. Now, the vegan-friendly seal can be seen at the entrance to 250 branches of 150 restaurants. Participants include Falafel Baribua, Susha Urban Sushi, Hashawarma Hatzimhonit, Zakaim, The Streets, Maharaja, Hashoftim, Nocturno, The Thai House, and the Cafe Greg and Espresso Bar chains.
How did you get the idea for the Vegan Friendly seal?
Meital Ben Ari, Vegan Friendly’s director: “It was obvious. After we asked the restaurants to add vegan entrees to the menu to make the restaurant accessible to the vegan community, something in the middle was lacking — a sign, a colorful sticker, a stamp that the restaurant could stick on its window so that it would be visible to vegans passing by on the street.”
Omri Paz: “If it hadn’t worked and there hadn’t been a demand, they would have said ‘no, thanks’ and left. But it’s been a year, and none of the vegan entrees has been removed from the menus. They’re becoming a way to bring in customers. In the meantime, there have been only five complaints from vegan customers who didn’t find something to eat in the restaurants we publicized. That’s all. And we’re very proud of that.
“Nir Zook’s Noa Bistro is an excellent example of a serious restaurant that added between six and eight entrees to the menu to get the seal — bean and beet casserole, black lentils in white wine, asparagus rice with tofu and greens and seared mushrooms in tofu, to name just a few. Air Cafe in Raanana added four entrees at our request, and when there was a lot of demand for them, they added three more.”
The falafel dilemma
How did you deal with the falafel dilemma? All falafel is vegan, after all.
Paz: On principle, we don’t give the seal to falafel. Falafel Baribua received it after they added vegetarian shawarma and vegan salads and pasta. A vegan doesn’t need a Vegan Friendly seal to know that he can eat falafel and hummus.”
Is this kind of work done elsewhere in the world?
Ben Ari: “Happy Cow’s application offers a similar category.”
Paz: “But there is no agency on earth that works to improve the supply of vegan entrees and gives a seal.”
Ben Ari: “We make a connection between the vegan public and restaurants. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know about each other. Along the way, we discovered businesses that weren’t 100 percent vegan, but that were completely vegetarian, right under our noses, like Cafe Mezze or the Ethiopian restaurant Tenat. When a vegan hears the phrase ‘vegan pizza,’ he goes wild. Vegans really miss that. In Petah Tikva there’s a pizzeria that added vegan cheese, and the day we announced that there was a restaurant with vegan pizza and they’d received the seal, the place couldn’t keep up with the demand. The owners went out five times to buy more cheese.
“The Gela ice cream shop got a Vegan Friendly seal. It’s not enough that they had sorbet; soy-based flavors are also required. I went there that evening. There was a long line, and everybody had come because of the announcement I’d put up on Vegan Friendly 90 minutes before! I was so excited. It was incredible.”
Is anyone investing in you, funding your work?
Paz: “It’s a volunteer, non-profit organization. None of us gets a salary.”
“In the next stage, we’ll mark all the vegan products that are sold in Israel — food and cosmetics. As of now, 50 companies have received the seal or will be getting it over the next few months. They include Harduf, Hasadeh, Adama and Doctor Mark [which produces organic food products], and the Dani and Galit Bakery.”