By Tracy Morin

Last December, ready to escape the winter chill with a weeklong trip to Aruba, I found myself knee-deep in restaurant research. Granted, not everyone is as food-obsessed as I—although if you’re a restaurant owner, you probably get it—but any trip for me entails deep thought about the most fundamental question: What will I eat?

As a longtime meat-free diner, this question can be trickier for me than for many other people, but in a way such restriction also makes my task much easier. Because I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: We folks with dietary restrictions can tell the difference between when you actually care about our needs or are just phoning it in. We know when you’ve put something (hopefully, plural: things) on the menu to check a box, versus when you’ve put as much thought into—and take as much pride in—your specialty-diet menu items as your “regular” ones.

Will you go to great lengths? We will!
If you run a restaurant at which vegan food is taken seriously, chances are, vegan eaters will jump through a lot more hoops to visit—and return. Most of us have heard the tales about gluten-free diners traveling far and wide for great pizza that fits their needs, and vegans can be just as enthusiastic.

Related: Alex Koons of Hot Tongue Pizza shares his recipe for plant-based sausage

For example, weeks before my visit, I spotted online a restaurant in Aruba that serves a specialty barbecue plate with not one, not two, but three different types of mock meats—made with tofu, seitan and jackfruit—positioned alongside specialty items like vegan chipotle mac and cheese. You should have seen my desperation to visit this place! I perused the full menu multiple times, called ahead to inquire, showed up 15 minutes before opening time to make sure I grabbed a seat, and snapped flattering photos of every component of my meal to share with friends and family.

And if I’d spent more time on the island, I probably would have gone back again—because guess what? This place didn’t simply slot in one vegan dish and call it a day (even though, considering how creative and thoughtful it was, that might have been enough to lure me in). No, the menu was full of vegan-friendly (and other allergen- and diet-sensitive) dishes.

The takeaways here: Offer something that goes above and beyond the bare minimum of vegan food. Better yet, offer several things—or many! Yes, you can put a cheeseless pie on the menu and slap a “V” next to it, and it’ll get orders from those who end up at your restaurant and have no other choice. But this approach is going to make the difference between being merely tolerated by vegans and becoming a destination for them.

The bottom line is, the effort you put into your vegan menu is exactly the effort vegans are going to spend visiting your establishment.

This photo shows the BBQ Supreme pizza from Screamers Pizzeria, topped with vegan bacon, vegan sausage, red onions, peppers, scallions and BBQ sauce

The vegan BBQ Supreme pizza (Screamer’s Pizzeria / Instagram

Doing It Right
So what are vegans looking for? In some ways, we’re looking for the same as any customer. Something unique and thoughtful. Hearty, filling and flavorful. Creative and outside-the-box. Give us something special that we can’t find at every other pizzeria. And, as more and more restaurants offer vegan foods, there is going to be a dwindling tolerance for so-so selections, so be ready to up your game—and keep upping it as you go.

Need some fun ideas? Here are some specialties from pizzerias around the country that are clearly doing it right—take inspiration from them:

America’s oldest vegan pizzeria, Seattle’s Pi Vegan Pizzeria, offers a Thai Chicken pie with white garlic sauce, spinach, mushrooms, pineapple, and Chick’n Strips, slathered in housemade Thai Peanut Sauce. As an added indulgence, this pizzeria offers a stuffed-crust option filled with vegan mozz.

Related: How Screamer’s Pizzeria shatters myths about vegan food

We’ve profiled Brooklyn, New York-based Screamers Pizzeria in the past (see link above), and for good reason: Its all-vegan menu screams creativity. Personally, I’m dreaming about the Fancy Kale pie. Creative base (spicy pesto)? Check. Housemade mock meat (seitan sausage)? Check. Thoughtfully prepared veggie topping (marinated fancy kale)? Check. And an oregano oil drizzle? Sign me up!

Talk about regional panache and an explosion of flavors—the Georgia Peach Pizza at Atlanta’s Plant Based Pizzeria is a perfect example of creative combinations. This unique pie includes roasted basil pizza sauce, vegan mozzarella, Spicy Beyond Sausage, roasted peaches, red onions and jalapeños. Vegan or not, who wouldn’t want to give that a try?

Pretty much every pizza at Detroit’s Pie Sci Pizza feels special, but it’s a dream scene for vegans, who can choose from an impressive array of pies like A Cluckwork Orange, with garlic oil, mozzarella, orange chicken (made from seitan), green onion, an orange hot ginger sauce drizzle, and sesame seeds. Bonus points for those creative names, too!

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.

Food & Ingredients