Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bobby's Burger Palace and a Vegetarian Conundrum

My co-workers were making a trip to the new Bobby's Burger Palace in downtown DC and invited me to come along.  They know I'm a vegetarian, but since most of the burger places in DC have a veg option, they invited me to tag along.  I checked the menu before I left and while there are no veggie burgers on there, I knew there were salads and sandwiches, so I was happy to give it a try.

I did get one of the salads (more on that later) but what I found to be more intriguing was a conversation we had with the people in line behind me.  Well, it wasn't so much of a conversation than a blunt statement, but let me recap.

Since there was a lot of buzz about Bobby's Burger Palace, the line was long, so we had plenty of time to review the menu and decide what to order.  I thought the toppings on the burgers looked good, so I wondered aloud if I should ask if I could get a burger without the meat, but just with the toppings.  My co-worker ended up asking an employee monitoring the line if this was an option.  The employee rep said he wasn't sure.  The guy behind us asked my co-worker if he was a vegetarian.  When I replied, "He's not, but I am," the guy shot back "Well, a better question is why a vegetarian would go to a burger place?"

It was our turn to order, so I didn't get a chance to respond.  But, here's what I would have said:

I Love Bobby Flay - It's true.  I watch Throwdown and squeal like a little girl.  I now pronounce chipotle "chi-po-tah-ley."  I still rave about a meal I had at Mesa Grill a few years ago.  If I ever meet the man in person, I'd probably resort to babbling idiocy.  If he has a new restaurant, I was going to try it.

I Love Trying New Restaurants - This wasn't your average fast food joint.  It was a cool concept with different menu items.  If there's a new place in DC, I'm going to check it out and find something to eat there.

I Like Being Included - When your co-workers want to go out to lunch, it's nice to be able to tag along.  My one co-worker who I went wish frequently tags along with me to Java Green, a vegan cafe near my office.  So, I was happy to accompany her to her choice today.

Anyhow, this whole encounter today made me think of the flip side of the equation . . . should all restaurants have at least one vegetarian option on their menu? 

Ultimately, running a restaurant involves making business decisions, and what goes on the menu is a big part of that decision.  If a restaurant doesn't feel they have customer demand for a vegetarian option, they're not going to put it on their menu.  That may be why Burger King has veggie burgers on their menu, but other fast food operators don't. 

It could also be a quality decision.  Take the burger place argument. Let's say they want to make their burgers from scratch, rather than frozen.  So, perhaps they haven't found a veggie burger that they can make from scratch that fits with their kitchen's flip time. 

But, here's the thing - I'd argue that including more vegetarian options is a great business decision.  As articles like this one suggest. More and more consumers are looking for meat free options, even if they're still omnivores.  And this Vegetarian Resource Guide Blog notes that:
  • In the National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot in 2011" survey of more than 1,500 professional chefs, over half rated meatless/vegetarian entrées and vegan entrées as a "hot trend."
  • Health and nutrition claims on menu items are increasing as consumers look for healthy options in restaurants as well as at home. Mintel found 42 percent growth in such claims from the first quarter of 2005 to the first quarter of 2007. Items labeled vegetarian, low-fat, gluten-free, trans-fat free, or low-calorie grew the most rapidly.
There's also a report you can order -  Vegetarian Means Business - if you want to learn more about it.

There are a variety of reasons folks might elect to order a vegetarian meal.  Like, me, they may have concerns with the treatment of animals in the food industry.  Like Bill Clinton, it could be a health choice.  It could be a religious choice.  It could be a taste preference.  But, the numbers are growing, and the foodservice industry should tap this market as soon as they can.   And, ultimately, an omnivore will happily eat anywhere, and, if the omnivore is in the company of a vegetarian, they'll both end up eating at the restaurant with a vegetarian option.  For example, when my husband want to go out to eat together and he wants a burger, we would likely go to Elevation Burger or BGR, both of whom have terrific veg options.  He gets his beef burger, I get my veggie burger and we're both happy. 

Crunch Salad from Bobby's Burger Palace

So, looping back to Bobby's Burger Palace, yes, their menu has vegetarian options, namely a "griddled cheese" and the Crunch Salad I ordered.  Honestly, I went in with low expectations - I knew the restaurant was showcasing burgers and I wasn't expecting the salad to be the star.  It was solidly in the "ok" category.  A nice surprise was that, although it's not in the menu description, the salad includes kidney beans and chickpeas, which are a tasty addition that adds heft to the salad.  The balsamic vinaigrette was also very good, and didn't have soy.  I found this out by accident when it was accidentally left on my salad when I asked for it not to be included.  But, the good news was no allergic reaction, and the dressing was also very, very good.  The white cheddar chunks were tasty, and I also liked the flavor of the tortilla strips.  The green onions also added some nice flavor.

The downsides - the quality of the lettuce was not so good.  When a salad is advertised as romaine, I expect lots of dark green leaves, but this salad was pretty pale.  Also, when a salad is advertised as having "Chopped Vegetables" and there are a ton of neat toppings on the menu (avocado, watercress), I had higher hopes for something other than just tomatoes.

So, would I order the salad again?  Given all the cool salad places near my office, probably not.  Would I try a griddled cheese?  Maybe - I am trying to cut back on dairy, but every once in awhile, I cave.  Would I call to see if I could get the LA Burger or the Napa Valley Burger as just the toppings on bread?  Definitely - I will try that soon, and try the sweet potato fries as well. 

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