Monday, June 6, 2011

"Vegan Meatballs" Lie on Children's Menu: My Expose

There's nothing better than a great local restaurant that serves up delicious vegan fare.  For a place like that, I give good ratings on Urban Spoon, Yelp, and Happy Cow.  A place like that I tell my friends about.  I tell the people who ask me about going vegan and tasteless food, and "how do you go out to eat" to go to that restaurant so they can see for themselves.

In Anchorage, we don't have any all-vegan restaurants (at the time of publishing this post I have not yet opened up my own vegan cafe, sadly).  We do, however, have a few that are "vegan-friendly" and even more that are turning that way.  The local brewpub, Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill, now has an entire section of their menu dedicated to vegan items, though they have denied my offer to share recipes or even come in part time so that they could have some awesome vegan deserts to add to the fun.  The busiest breakfast diner, where Drew Barrymore ate quite often when she was shooting a movie in town, Snow City Cafe, now has an icon on their menu indicating which items can "easily be made vegan" and instead of just leaving things out and charging you the same price, they even let me sub avocado for the eggs they are leaving off.   Middle Way Cafe, a personal favorite of mine, almost always has a vegan baked good in addition to both savory and sweet vegan breakfast items and the most amazing avocado melt you can imagine for lunch.  Although I'm not usually the type to order a salad as an entree, I have been known to literally drink their lemon tahini dressing because it is so amazing.  There are many more that I really should take the time to list, but instead I will launch into the madness.

In Anchorage, there is one restaurant that is known for catering to vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians looking for free range buffalo burgers, organic lamb gyros, and wild Alaskan halibut wraps.  That place is Organic Oasis.  Oddly, while this particular restaurant is known for it's extra enlightened menu, the waitstaff is not always as well-informed as I would like.  They often don't know what they are serving, but have always been polite and quick to ask the chef about any of my questions.  In addition, the chef has always been great about altering a dish to meet my needs.  Unfortunately, it is neither the waitstaff or the chef writing the menu.

Rather than rehash the scenario and then post my letter, I will just post the email I sent to the owner after a very unpleasant circumstance.  I know there are typos, but I want to be honest about what I said and honest about my response, so I posting it as is:

The first time I went to Organic Oasis was about three years ago, when we were new to Anchorage.  At that time we were omnivores, but both my husband and I are allergic to dairy.  We were so pleased to see vegan carrot cake on the menu, and even mentioned that part of our excitement was because of our dairy allergy.  To our confusion and surprise, our cake was served to us with a scoop of Humboldt Creamery ice cream, which according to the menu is not included and actually costs extra.  We are pushovers and instead of raising a fuss, we just at what wasn't touching the ice cream, tipped our server despite this poor service, and figured there were no other options for us in Anchorage, so we might as well grin and bear it.
As the years have passed, we have enjoyed the food at Organic Oasis greatly, although again and again we were faced with servers who were very polite, but often didn't know what had dairy (or in several cases what "dairy" meant.  In answer to my question, "does the chocolate you use to make the mochas have milk in it?"  The reply I got was, "We can make it with rice milk."  When I reiterated that I meant the actual chocolate used to make the mocha, not whatever milk or milk substitute was use, I got a blank stare and the words "It's organic."  
In spite of these disappointments, the food is always tasty, and again, the service has always been friendly, if poorly informed about what they are serving.  I have my CSA box delivered there, and so at least once a week I eat lunch there with my daughter and we always have a good time.  We are now vegan, and there are so few options for us in Anchorage that we have put aside these mishaps in favor of being able to order food that we can trust to be vegan.
Last week, my husband, daughter, and I came in for lunch and we were thrilled to see spaghetti and vegan meatballs on the Children's Menu.  Eager to try the newest vegan item, we ordered it for our daughter, who has been vegan since birth (as such, we would have no idea if she is allergic to dairy or eggs, but when ordering vegan items that shouldn't be an issue).  What she didn't finish, I ate the next morning.  The vegan meatballs had a texture that I thought was really interesting, so I looked at the menu online and found that they were made from "myco-protein."  After a quick search, the only sources of myco-protein I could find were Quorn products, which any vegan knows contain egg whites.  Even the wikipedia definition of basic myco-protein says that it contains egg whites.  I held out hope and posted on your facebook page and attempted to call 3 or 4 times without ever getting through.  Today I went in and asked the waitress if the "vegan" meatballs had egg whites.  I was standing at the counter, so I saw her ask the chef, who pulled out a bag of Quorn meatballs and read the label.  "Yeah, there are egg whites in these," he said.  The waitress relayed the information with no apology or explanation other than, "they were just added to the menu." 
The waitstaff without an understanding of what vegan means is one thing, but it is inexcusable to put children at risk for potentially dangerous reactions to a fairly common allergen- eggs.  It's also in excusable to try to dupe vegans with a product whose packaging clearly states that it has eggs and does not in any way claim to be vegan.  As many claims as Organic Oasis makes about it's products, "free range" "organic" "grass fed" "corn syrup free" etc, and you can't read a simple list of ingredients?  I find it hard to believe that any of the statements you make about your food has any credibility at this point, and this has finally been the tipping point to turn away this customer.
I am also a member of the Alaska Veg Meetup, with about 150 members, and I have shared my concerns with them, as well as several local mothers I know with severely allergic children.  At least two of those mothers were previously very loyal customers, but I doubt they will be any longer.  
I truly hope you find a way to fix these inconsistancies, to reassure the local vegan and vegetarian communities, and to let parents know that you are not trying to put their children in harms way with your Children's Menu items.
Doesn't say vegan here.

This was the response I got:
I am sorry for your poor experience and for believing we are reckless & duping our customers with our offerings. I think you are a bit harsh here. We are on the frontier of food service. We ask for and expect a little latitude. We will take the vegan icon off the meatball dish. I have had so much headache trying to help special diet people. I owned & operated a vegan juice bar and cafe in this town for 8 years. That was 19897 to 1995. Special diet food is always a hard sell because the number of people is so small. There are hundreds of people who come through Organic Oasis each day. About 5% are special diet people. I try to facilitate them from a space of compassion. If we make a mistake out here on the food frontier, please try to be gentle with us. We try and sometimes we succeed, This is how a movement is grown. 

People who come to work for me have little experience in this "special" menu world called Organic Oasis. It is difficult for these servers to retain information. It is endemic across the industry. I fish from a shallow pond when I advertise for help. It is the biggest tragedy at Organic Oasis. Most servers have two jobs or are going to college making it difficult to conduct meaningful training sessions. You expect too much from people who make 8 dollars an hour. I come from a different  work ethic where we would claim ownership of our jobs. It just is not that way now days. Sure you can find good servers, but about 80% of them are deficient in basic skills and have cavalier attitudes. It is sad. Most people have no idea how difficult it is to offer on a daily basis all of these foods made from scratch. 
I am grateful for you taking the time to give honest feedback. But threatening to not come in anymore, you only hurt your options for dining out. Supporting places that pay attention to GMO, corn syrup, preservatives, etc, only helps the movement grow. I am sorry we will not see you anymore and even sorrier that I let you down. I take this seriously and will undoubtedly spring forward with action due to your feed back. Again, thank you for taking the time to care.

Quorn has the decency to warn consumers with allergies that this product contains eggs, as should any resaler.

I would first like to note that he has in no way addressed the issue of why a prepackaged item with a bold face warning below the ingredients list indicating that this product contains egg whites was put on the menu as "vegan meatballs."

The second thing I would point out is that while he indicates that of the "hundreds of customers" that come through the restaurant a day, only 5% are those with special diets, the menu is designed to cater almost exclusively to special diets of one sort or another.  It seems highly unlikely that of those hundreds, more than 5% don't eat a special diet of "mostly organic" foods, or a special diet that includes the avoidance of farmed fish/meat/GMO foods.  Wheatgrass shots a big seller at this restaurant, but I don't see the general population consuming a lot of wheatgrass.

Finally, I would like to point out that making a claim that something is vegan for no apparent reason other than to appeal to a broader audience calls into question all the other claims they make about their menu.  Are things labeled "organic" really organic, or was that just an error on the menu as well?  What does GMO-free mean if the menu author can't even read the ingredients on a package of Quorn meatless balls?  How carefully are they regulating their promises to their customers and the claims about what they are selling?  For me, it calls into the question the integrity of the entire establishment.

Where do I go from here?  That's the question.  I have been advised by more than one friend to write a letter to the editor of our local paper, especially because they were serving and incorrectly labeled item that contained a common allergen- and on the CHILDREN'S menu no less.  I'm not sure how far I want to take this, but I do feel that more should be done.  For now, I will publish this little rant and move on for a bit.

**UPDATE**  Well, last week, about two weeks after my initial email, a friend went into the restaurant and it was STILL on the menu.  Not only that, but when he said something to the waitress she had no idea, so it hasn't even been mentioned to the staff (only about 10 people work there).  To me, that means the owner is DELIBERATELY misleading customers and putting children at risk for a bad egg reaction.  It would cost nothing to put a sticky note next to the register or next to the schedule in back that says that the vegan meatballs aren't vegan, just let customers know.


  1. jacquihives@hotmail.comJune 7, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    Im a vegan as well and I can see both sides of this story, but I think you have definitely got a very valid point and maybe should reply to the owner again with what you have said here first before escalating it any further and let them know your intentions of taking it to the next level.

  2. I did email the owner again and asked again why a non-vegan prepackaged item was put on the menu as vegan and got no reply this time. I'm content at this point to just let others know about the situation and no longer support that establishment. A friend of mine has taken that knowledge and run with it, and that is based on how she feels, but I have not taken it any further.

  3. In the reply email the owner said they take it seriously, but they clearly dont - people see Vegans or anyone with a "different to normal" diet as annoying and fussy - they just dont get it!

  4. The way I see it, your options for eating out are very limited and now your limiting yourselves. As I read I noticed that the owner of OO acknowledges that his staff is unaware of dietary needs, ingredients and is paid poorly. Which is reflected in poor service and high staff turnover as witnessed by myself on multiple occasions. Higher wage = an invested, happy employee. Paid monthly staff meetings for training would help. A printed, laminated list of ingredients for staff and customers. They don't have to learn all the ingredients but can refer to list, I would put a symbol by each item for quick reference and on the menu.
    I also noticed that while complaints are plenty, no solutions were offered. Along with the 3 above you should offer your services to help with this in exchange for dining. You could help with a training class/staff meeting. You could help comprise the list from their menu and go over items used in food preparation. You could suggest to the owner that he then could tout his establishment as the only safe place for people with dietary needs to eat.
    You could also offer that once these practices and tools are in place you will get your Vegan group and parent of children with allergies group to meet monthly at OO. Money in OO's pocket will speak volumes.
    While not foolproof or perfect, it is a start and remember, anyone can complain, it takes a leader to come up with workable, affordable solutions.

  5. Wendy, it sounds like you have some really solid ideas here. I hope you contact OO and share them. Maybe they will be more receptive to your suggestions. At last check they hadn't changed the menu or even notified staff of the correction, and that was only a few days ago, so at this point they are being deliberately misleading and putting children in danger. I personally can't support a man who does this, but if other choose to patronize this restaurant, that's their business and money.