By Tracy Morin
It’s simple, it’s delicious, and nowadays, it’s practically required: Adding vegan cheese to your menu may just increase your customer base more than any other single ingredient. And it no longer has to taste like plastic or cost an arm and a leg. “I’ve helped several restaurants add vegan cheese pizzas to their menus in a cost-effective way,” notes Meredith Marin, CEO and consultant at Vegan Hospitality in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Adding just this one ingredient can increase your menu size with minimal effort, while bringing in a new loyal following of vegan and dairy-free customers.” Here, experts from across the food industry share their best tips for making the most of this addition.
POV: The Pizzeria
Hengam Stanfield, co-founder, Mattenga’s Pizzeria, San Antonio, TX
It’s important to cater to customers with different dietary needs and preferences. It’s also important to take the time and find the right vegan cheese that your guests will love. For our six locations, we have changed the vegan cheeses we offer a couple of times, based on feedback from our customers. We involve them in the selection process by asking for feedback and even conducting taste tests! This shows that we care about their opinions and helps to ensure that we’re offering a product they will enjoy. Plus, sharing about the Vegan Taste Test on social media generates excitement and anticipation for the new offerings.
“Operationally, offering vegan cheese is similar to offering any other topping, and there is no need to make any significant changes to your existing processes.”
— Hengam Stanfield, Mattenga’s Pizzeria
Marketing the vegan options on social media and local Facebook groups is a great way to attract new customers and build a reputation as a restaurant that caters to diverse needs. Additionally, offering vegan options can enhance the image of the restaurant, as it demonstrates a commitment to using clean ingredients.
Operationally, offering vegan cheese is similar to offering any other topping, and there is no need to make any significant changes to your existing processes. The vegan cheese pizza will look, bake and taste no different from one with regular mozzarella. All that matters is that our paying customers love it, and they do!
POV: The Consultant
Meredith Marin, CEO and consultant, Vegan Hospitality, West Palm Beach, FL
Taste a variety of vegan cheese options before choosing the best fit for your menu. Consider a pourable cheese versus shreds—you can even make fancy designs on your pizzas with liquid cheese.
Choose a vegan cheese that fits your price point; there are a wide variety of options. Or consider making your own liquid vegan cheese (great for pizzas!) with cashews, tapioca starch, water and spices. You can also make your cheese shreds go further by turning them into a pourable cheese sauce—just blend them with a plant-based milk, like soy, cashew or coconut. You may find that making your vegan cheese this way will turn out even less expensive than your cow-based mozzarella.
Use more than one style of cheese on your pizza for a more textured effect and more bang for your buck, combining a higher-quality cheese with a less-premium version. Or accept a lower profit margin on some of your simple vegan dishes and balance them with a higher profit margin on the more premium vegan dishes. For example, make your vegan cheese pizza the same price as your dairy cheese pizza to bring in new customers, but for your vegan meat lover’s pizza (which they will be very excited to try), adjust the margins a bit higher.
“Consider a pourable cheese versus shreds—you can even make fancy designs on your pizzas with liquid cheese.”
— Meredith Marin, Vegan Hospitality
Vegan cheeses have improved in their ability to melt, stretch, and be used for everything from pizza to mozzarella sticks to salad toppings. We now have cultured versions, which gives them that tangy flavor. Many customers who now order vegan cheese were not always vegan or dairy-free, and they look for good replicas in the flavors of their old favorites.
Work with a vegan hospitality consultant for the best results in menu development, recipe testing and marketing to the vegan community. If you have access to an in-house vegan expert or connections with the vegan community yourself, be sure to get community opinions before launching your menu. This means bringing people in for taste tests and surveying your customers/future customers. If you are not vegan yourself, make sure you also like the taste of your own vegan options, and allow your staff to taste the new dishes so that they can generate more sales!
POV: The Plant-Based Chefs
Suzi Gerber, author, Plant-Based Gourmet, Somerville, MA
Lactose allergy is estimated at 70% worldwide. Within an average group of four customers in U.S. cities, at least one will be allergic to dairy or abstaining for religious reasons, health reasons, or ethical reasons like veganism. Offering these options ensures all groups can visit, be happy and return.
However, modern vegan cheeses need moisture to melt, because they are starch-based. Covering the dish and misting oil can help create that ooey-gooey stretch. Avoid direct flame and high-heat approaches unless you’re trying to crisp and blacken (which vegan cheese does well). Expect many more major innovations, too—including with dairy proteins and fermentation.
Work locally if you prefer. There’s always a local cheesemaker, like Pleese Cheese in New York and Uncreamery in San Francisco—and they’ll bring you tons of loyal customers, too. Otherwise, your distributor has more mainstream options like Daiya and Follow Your Heart. You can also make a cheese sauce that cooks like melted cheese, and I’ve created several easy recipes for cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella.
“It used to be that all you could find was a rubbery slice of plant-based cheddar, and now stores carry everything from pepper Jack to smoked Gouda with turmeric.”
— Chef Jumoke Jackson, Slutty Vegan
Chef Jumoke Jackson, @mrfoodtastic/executive chef, Slutty Vegan, Brooklyn, NY
People are becoming more health-conscious, and eliminating dairy has been one of their targets. The industry has seen the need for nondairy options, so plant-based cheeses continue to evolve, with some amazing new options that taste and perform like dairy cheese. They’ve improved over the years by leaps and bounds.
The No. 1 gripe with vegan cheese is meltability, so the plant-based cheese space has taken that head-on. Plus, there’s more variety: It used to be that all you could find was a rubbery slice of plant-based cheddar, and now stores carry everything from pepper Jack to smoked Gouda with turmeric. I love Violife and Follow Your Heart, but try a bunch of plant-based cheeses before you commit. With a little effort, you’ll find the blend and brand that is perfect for your menu and restaurant.
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor and the editor of PizzaVegan.com.
The Great Upcharge Debate
Should you upcharge for vegan cheese? Our experts weigh in:
“While upcharges have been tolerated for some time now, they are on their way out. Vegan cheeses are becoming more affordable, especially when bought at wholesale prices, and vegans and dairy-allergic customers are more eager to support businesses that treat all of their guests equally, without stigma or consequence.” —Meredith Marin, CEO and consultant, Vegan Hospitality, West Palm Beach, FL
“You should upcharge for vegan cheese, because you should be using quality options, and those aren’t cheap. Also, the time and research a restaurant puts into selecting plant-based cheese justifies a premium price. The margins and profit you can make are comparable in percentage to dairy cheese.” —Chef Jumoke Jackson, @mrfoodtastic/executive chef for Slutty Vegan, Brooklyn, NY
“We have been offering vegan cheese, vegan pepperoni and vegan sausage for over a year now, and we charge extra for these toppings, as it reflects the additional cost to the restaurant.” —Hengam Stanfield, co-founder, Mattenga’s Pizzeria, San Antonio, TX
“Upcharging is a bad look in today’s culture. Take into account the reduced cost of removing the other cheese when doing evaluations. Spread the small cost across the base dish price instead.” —Chef Suzi Gerber, author, Plant-Based Gourmet, Somerville, MA