Burger King has it right: Vegetarians are hungry for options

Until recently, a vegetarian was hard-pressed to find anything to eat at a fast food place that wasn’t french fries or a side salad. These days, more fast food joints are catching on to the market of vegetarians they have been ignoring, but even the ones that do aren’t really promoting their vegetarian options.

Are they nervous the association to a veggie burger will make them seem “green” or “hippie,” or do they not understand how much their business benefits from the veggie options? Some entrepreneurs had trouble starting or marketing their eco-friendly businesses before the green movement became mainstream, because investors didn’t want to be associated with or labeled as niche or “hippie.”

About 3 percent of the adult population is vegetarian (one poll says 3.2, the other 2.8), which equals out to about seven million people, give or take a few hundred thousand. About 5.2 percent (11.9 million) are interested in vegetarian diets, and 10 percent (more than 20 million) of adults consider themselves vegetarian even though they occasionally eat chicken or fish. I fall into that latter group, as I probably eat meat once or twice a month at most.

Recently at a Burger King on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I heard one of the employees shout someone’s order — a veggie burger. I was shocked and excited — Burger King had a veggie burger? Since when? Why didn’t they promote it more? Last weekend, a woman next to me heard me order the veggie burger at this same turnpike plaza, and she told her husband, “Wait, they have a veggie burger — I don’t want the fish sandwich anymore.”

Obviously there is a vegetarian demographic that would eagerly gobble this new veggie burger up, but they don’t widely publicize this new menu option (unless I missed the advertising — which I doubt considering all the TV I watch). If about 18 percent of people either identify, try or think about being a vegetarian, that’s a large customer base who are interested in vegetarian options — almost one in five customers.

Vegetarians and vegans are like anyone who has food preferences or allergies — they memorize the food places where they can eat in a mental map. If you’re allergic to peanuts, you seek out and remember what restaurants don’t use peanut oil; if you’ve got a gluten allergy, you memorize restaurants that have good wheat-free dishes — same goes when you don’t eat meat and/or dairy.

I know that I can get a veggie burger at Burger King, Fuddruckers and Flamers (and a grilled cheese at Five Guys, but it’s a pretty pitiful slice of cheese on a hamburger bun and also not vegan). These are fast food places that are burger-centric, and otherwise I might just get some fries if I went there. Because I can get the veggie burger, I immediately gravitate to these fast food joints if I need a quick bite, and I also spend more money at these places — e.g. instead of spending $2 on fries, I’ll spend $6 on a combo.

This is lucrative for fast food places, as vegetarians need to eat on the go, too. Vegetarians are also typically concerned about their health and/or the environment, so they probably won’t be making daily trips to these fast food places, but they and other non-veggie health concerned people are still going to give serious consideration to spending more money at these businesses.

More customers, more products bought = more $$$. Isn’t that a great business model? It’s important to recognize and promote vegetarian options because the customer base is out there. Eating is a very social thing, and when every menu option is either meat or covered in meat, made with a carnivorous audience in mind, it’s tough to find joy in eating out and with friends.

That is, unless, there are a few delicious vegetarian options. Vegetarianism is growing in popularity — between 2000 and 2004, 0.5 percent more people identified as vegetarian — that’s about 1.1 million more people. Vegetarian isn’t just a choice that crunchy granola hippies embrace — it’s becoming a mainstream lifestyle choice that restaurants need to embrace and adopt, rather than hide and ignore.

(Also, let me know if you’ve got some food spots with good vegetarian options!)

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