March 16, 2020

If you’re thinking about opening a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, you’ll be riding a wave that’s much more than a ripple. The number of Americans switching to a plant-based diet is growing rapidly, and they’re making different choices at the grocery store and in their dining habits.

In this article, we give you several key things to consider when opening a plant-based restaurant or café, including creative ways to partner with other plant-based food entrepreneurs. We’ll describe how to research your idea, how to promote your restaurant in your community and more.

Step one for any business is to create products and services that your target audience already wants. If you’re a long-time vegan or vegetarian, you probably love fresh vegetables and dishes that bring out natural plant flavors. But many people who are new to a plant-based lifestyle still crave the foods that they grew up with. For example…

Plant-Based Consumers Still Want Foods That Mimic Meat and Dairy

It’s important to remember that the new, mass-market of plant-based consumers are looking for foods that mimic the flavors they’re already used to…especially meat and dairy. In 2019, the plant-based meat category became an $800-million industry with a 10% annual growth rate, versus just 2% for conventional meats.

In response, chefs are retooling their recipes to appeal to a market that still craves traditional flavor profiles but that is made entirely from plants. Having a classical foundation of training in French cooking can be a critical advantage.

Escoffier culinary arts student and plant-based enthusiast Shane Witters-Hicks“I’ve been so inspired to re-create flavors and textures with plant-based ingredients, as well as use the advanced techniques I’m learning to elevate plant-based cuisine.”

Shane Witter Hicks, Culinary Arts student

Escoffier student and plant-based enthusiast Shane Witters-Hicks understands this well. “I know it sounds counterintuitive… Escoffier teaches culinary arts through a foundation of classical, French cuisine, and French cooking is often very dairy- and meat-heavy. But it also influences lots of other, worldly diets. At Escoffier, I get the opportunity every day to cook and taste the best of the world’s cuisine. After making each dish, I ask myself, ‘How can I make a plant-based version of this?’

“I’ve been so inspired to re-create flavors and textures with plant-based ingredients, as well as use the advanced techniques I’m learning to elevate plant-based cuisine.”

In other words, by appealing to the flavors consumers are already used to, your new restaurant—and the plant-based movement overall—can continue to grow.

Partner with Plant-Based Food Entrepreneurs and Natural Foods Grocers

As you research your vegan or vegetarian restaurant idea, it’s important to ask, “Where do plant-based food consumers already shop locally, and what products are they buying?” A low-cost way to research opportunities, find potential partnerships, and interact with your target customers could be your local natural foods grocer.

Witters-Hicks doesn’t own a restaurant yet (he’s still a student!), but he’s found plenty of ways to rub shoulders with the plant-based entrepreneurs and consumers in his local community:

“When I first started teaching cooking classes at Alfalfa’s Market (a popular natural grocery store in Boulder, Colorado), I met a few entrepreneurs and got really excited about their products, which led to brief partnerships for recipe development.

“While perusing their websites, I noticed that they had few (if any) recipes to offer the public using their products. Company-owned recipes are a great way to advertise and showcase a particular product, and I’ve enjoyed partnering with companies to help them develop recipes in order to build their brand.”

Alfalfa’s Market in Boulder, Colorado

Photo courtesy of Alfalfa’s Market

Those recipes could be featured items on your menu, and the people you meet teaching a vegan or vegetarian cooking class could be your future restaurant customers.

Bottom line: don’t underestimate the value of reaching out to and supporting your community before you open your restaurant. You’ll learn a huge amount about your target customers so that you can tailor your restaurant’s offerings to their wants and needs.

Choose a Location in a More Affluent Neighborhood

No matter what enterprise you’re launching – a bakery, coffee shop or vegan café – always take time to research the market before choosing the location. Will it be a walk-up venue in an area with lots of foot traffic? Is there ample parking if you’re off-the-beaten-track? How will you draw people to your restaurant?

You’ll want to choose a relatively affluent neighborhood – they’re more likely to be health-conscious and also be able to afford your cuisine.

Be Realistic About Higher Food Costs and Shoot for a 25% Profit Margin

Vegan and vegetarian diets usually go hand-in-hand with organic products. That means more money per pound for common ingredients than traditional restaurants have to pay. An appealing vegetarian menu will have novel fruits and vegetables…heirloom varieties and seasonal, hard-to-source items.

In general, restaurants aim for a 25% or higher profit margin per dish. When you’re writing the business plan for your restaurant, you’ll have to factor in higher food costs, in addition to your lease, insurance, kitchen equipment, décor, and marketing budget.

It’s manageable. Vegetarian and vegan diners are usually ready to pay a little more for their food. But they’re not just looking at the food on the plate…they’re looking at the service items. Plan on using cloth or recycled paper napkins instead of bleached ones, bamboo or stainless steel cutlery instead of disposable plastic, recycled/recyclable paper or compostable take-out cartons instead of plastic or styrofoam, and so on. All of these details show that you’re conscientious not only of your clients’ health but the sustainability of the entire planet.

Be prepared to deliver an eco-friendly experience from start to finish – and budget for it.

Remember: Vegetables are High Maintenance

Guests who are new to a vegetarian diet can be dismayed by the prices. They look at their vegan stew for $22 and the grilled sirloin with seasonal vegetables for $25 and wonder why their all-veggie dish isn’t cheaper.

Non-vegan or non-vegetarian customers will need a little bit of education. But they also need a great culinary experience, so that they don’t regret choosing a vegetarian option. Vegetables are high maintenance. A line cook or prep cook in the kitchen brigade will spend far more time washing, peeling, and chopping vegetables than they will taking a good cut of beef out of the cooler and seasoning it.

It’s time-consuming. And you’re paying for that time, so the price of the dish should reflect that…and your customers will hopefully appreciate the extra effort.

You’ll Need to Be Flexible

As we said earlier, if you’re planning on a plant-based menu, you’ll have to be adaptable. There will be certain ingredients that are either not available, or so expensive you can’t keep them on the menu year-round.

You’ll be switching up your menu – and developing some staples that are popular – because you’re working with Mother Nature in your vegetarian restaurant. It can be an exciting culinary challenge…and if you have a good grounding in the culinary arts, you’ll be able to manage it.

It’ll Be More Than Just an Eatery

We know that there’s a growing market for plant-based diets. The community of vendors and consumers is unique, and as we’ve already pointed out, embracing that community can be very fulfilling…and profitable. Your vendors will become partners in your business, and your diners – who most often have a grassroots interest in the environment and their community – will become your friends.

If you create an engaging menu and inviting space – a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere – you’ll find that your vegan café is a venue for more than just serving meals. Your diners will be open to purchasing other eco-friendly products – shopping bags, cookbooks, and locally-made artisan items. That means that you’ll have an opportunity to generate even more revenue, either on a consignment basis or through small investments, and support your plant-based friends and the community at large.

Of course, there are risks and rewards in any business venture, and your training at a culinary school can take you in many directions. If you choose to open a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, you have an opportunity to introduce people to a lifestyle that many believe is more sustainable in the long run.

If you’d like to learn more about opening a plant-based restaurant, check out our Plant-Based Culinary Programs we offer at our two campuses and online.

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This article was originally published on April 11, 2016, and has been updated.