Finding healthy meals when you’re on the go can be notoriously difficult in the fast food nation that is the US, and if you’re vegan, the outlook is even more grim (I mean, have you ever experienced the horror that is a McDonald’s side salad?).
Thankfully, two major chains are working on altering the fast food landscape so that carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike can stop for a quick and affordable bite all across the country.
Vegans and vegetarians have been happy with Chipotle for years. Those avoiding meat and dairy were always able to cobble together a bowl or burrito from black beans, veggies, rice, salsa, and guac, but a lot of consumers were frustrated that the chain added pork to its pinto beans. Even worse, there was no mention of this on the menu, and after a 2011 Twitter tirade from one customer, many Chipotle patrons were upset to find that they’d been unknowingly consuming pork for years.
Responding to the customer’s complaint, the company eventually rolled out new signage indicating that the beans contained bacon. Two years later, Chipotle rolled out bacon-free pintos in all of its stores.
“In testing some recipes, we simply didn’t think the bacon added anything and, by removing it, we make the pinto beans vegetarian,” a spokesperson for the company told Consumerist.
This was an important step in a couple of ways. Firstly, it made the vegetarian and vegan community feel like the company takes their requests and concerns seriously. There’s something to be said for a carnivore and a vegan being able to go to the same restaurant and to both leave feeling not just satisfied, but catered to and valued.
Secondly, by rolling out bacon-free pinto beans at all locations, rather than adding a vegetarian pinto bean in addition to the original recipe, Chipotle is reducing the amount of animal products it uses overall. For the chain, this can represent a monetary savings, but it also shows the vegan and vegetarian community that Chipotle is committed to lessening its reliance on animal products when it makes sense — something that not many chains have been willing to do as of yet. (For instance, McDonald’s French fries are bizarrely non-vegan – they’re made with “Natural Beef Flavor” that is derived from dairy and wheat.)
The most recent boon to Chipotle’s vegan cred is the company’s addition of vegan Sofritas to its menu. Sofritas, a seasoned, non-GMO tofu mixture, came into being when the company was simultaneously testing a chorizo recipe (in hopes of increasing sustainability by using more parts of the animal) and creating the menu for ShopHouse, Chipotle’s sister restaurant. Testers loved the tofu they were going to be using at ShopHouse, and realized that it would be more sustainable to create a vegan menu option for Chipotle rather than another meat recipe.
When it comes to making a truly vegan product, Chipotle chef Nate Appleman told Westword that “we understand that as a vegan, as a vegetarian, you don’t want your food coming into contact with meat. We get it. We talk about that in training all the time and make sure everybody understands. Perception is everything, and we just make everybody aware that it’s something we care about and it’s something the customers care about.”
With more than 1,600 restaurants in the USA and Europe, that philosophy is making a big impact.
For all that Chipotle has done in an upscale fast-casual environment, Subway‘s impact could be even greater.
The fast-food sub shop is the world’s largest restaurant chain (it surpassed McDonald’s in 2011). It’s also seen as a budget option. While most of Chipotle’s offerings will cost you $6 and up (with a full meal adding up to $10-$12), Subway is known for its $5 footlong promotions and inexpensive 6-inch sub combos.
The chain has had one vegan-friendly option for years: the Veggie Delite sub on Italian bread is vegan, as long as you don’t get cheese or any dairy-based condiments.
In 2012, Subway began testing a vegan menu in its stores in Washington, D.C., and now it is expanding. The company recently announced that it will be rolling out two new vegan options at more than 100 stores in Los Angeles and Orange County, California, and will be continuing to test vegan options at more than 300 of its stores in D.C.
On the menu? The Black Bean and Malibu Garden subs, featuring vegan veggie patties served on vegan bread with vegan sauces.
It’s a small change, but could be significant. The Southern California test market is known for its health-conscious citizens, but better yet, having these meat- and dairy-free options available at a similar or lower price as their meaty counterparts will make cruelty-free cuisine available to a wide array of diners on a budget. The move, if permanent, would show vegan customers that Subway is listening to them, while also providing omnivores with a more healthy choices.
With one of the most reputable fast-casual restaurants in the US and the largest fast-food chain in the world working more vegan items onto their menus, it seems like we could be on the cusp of a sea change in the restaurant industry. It will be interesting to see if the trend trickles down into other major chains, and a lot of eyes will be watching to see how successful the meat- and dairy-free options become. Either way, it looks like for the time being things will be a lot easier for hungry vegans on the go. I’ll raise a tall glass of cashew milk to that!