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Why You Should Care About Vegan Customers

In this installment of Brian's Vegan Journey, Brian Hernandez hits up Alex Koons of Hot Tongue Pizza for tips on developing and marketing a vegan menu.

Posted on March 23, 2022

Vegan Pizza Q&A Brian's Vegan Journey Operators' Corner 275037589_235823625349821_988577173202245876_n

By Brian Hernandez

With two months of my three-month vegan journey behind me, I can now say I feel relatively comfortable in this vegan skin. While I haven’t noticed a lot of health and physical differences in my role as the “office vegan,” others have commented on my clearer skin and overall appearance. I quit drinking six months before this journey, and that accounted for a drastic weight loss that seemed to plateau around the time I started this diet. But I think some vegan weight loss has kicked in over the last couple of weeks. Regardless, I am looking and feeling good, with the occasional day of fatigue. But that’s OK. Lima beans all day on those days!

On the two-month anniversary of my journey, I talked with vegan pizza consultant, U.S. Pizza Team member and all-around nice guy Alex Koons of Hot Tongue Pizza in Los Angeles. Being a vegan himself and an owner of another pizzeria (Purgatory Pizza) that offers vegan alternatives for all of its pizzas, Koons offered valuable insights about vegan customers and practices.

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PMQ: When did you go vegan, and why?

Koons: As far back as I can remember, I’ve never liked eating anything with eyes, but I have been a vegetarian for about 17 years and vegan for six of them. I got really into cooking the minute I stopped eating dairy and meat, because I wanted to push the limits of what I had done prior to that change. I wanted to make the best food I could without using animal byproducts. It’s quite a challenge, but I was up for it.

PMQ: What’s the biggest thing restaurateurs overlook when adding vegan options or opening a vegan establishment?

Koons: The biggest mistake most people make is not liking their vegan options themselves. You can tell if someone puts something on the menu just to fill a void. Don’t put anything on the menu that you think has to be there. If you’re going to put it on the menu, make it as great as your favorite item on that menu. It’s simple, but people overlook it just to please the customers. You can taste love and effort.

PMQ: Are “We Are Vegan-Friendly” disclaimers acceptable on a menu if you don’t have a fully vegan prep station?

Koons: Absolutely. It shows you care enough about them to be transparent. Put up a sign or a menu note saying, “We do our best, but there may be some cross-contamination.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but if they have a still have a problem with it, count that as their issue and not yours.

PMQ: Should pizzerias offer plant-based proteins and meatless alternatives?

Koons: While that isn’t for me personally, there have been a lot of improvements in these products recently, and people seem to like them. I personally don’t think they are healthy replacements, if you look at some of the recipes, but it depends on your headspace. As you said, you needed at least one alternative to make it through. I like more whole foods, fruits and veggies. It all depends on the customer’s palate.

PMQ: Is it better to make your own plant-based proteins or buy from a distributor?

Koons: Make it all day long! I suggest you find one meat alternative recipe you like and offer at least that one “meat” item on the menu. That’s acceptable in vegan circles. You can visit my website for some recipes, and I encourage you to steal them and make them yours. The ingredients are cheap. It costs you mostly time and labor.

PMQ: As a vegan, what do you look for when you dine out?

Koons: I like the things everyone else likes: burritos, falafels, Pad Thai. You can easily make all of those dishes without meat, fish sauce or eggs. You can make numerous items on your menu vegan without adding anything and omitting or substituting very little.

PMQ: What were the biggest struggles you faced as a vegan customer?

Koons: Just getting served meat or dairy in your dish. If I get a pizza delivered to my house that has cheese on it, it’s not like I can just eat around it. Teach your staff to care about the vegan customer and not see them as a nuisance, because that attitude will always show through, good or bad. I’m not that picky when mistakes happen, but others are and will throw the whole thing out. At Purgatory, we make mistakes all the time. But it’s all about how you handle that mistake and trying to not make them in the first place. Even just an “I’m sorry” goes a long way.

PMQ: Should an operator mark items on the menu that already are or can be made vegan easily?

Koons: Absolutely. You should mark those items with a “V.” It only costs you a little ink when printing menus. But again, if you do not like the dishes or don’t care about them, it will show. At that point, don’t even bother.

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PMQ: Top three tips for adding vegan options?

Koons: Examine your menu for items that already are or can easily be made vegan by changing very little or, better yet, nothing at all. Make sure you have solid recipes for dairy and meat alternatives, and I would even suggest calling them “alternatives.” I don’t like calling things what they are not. I will call it an “[insert name here] alternative” at most. Finally, make sure you like the vegan dishes on your menu.

PMQ: How do you market to vegan customers?

Koons: The same way you market your regular menu. If you like your own vegan menu, it shows. And if you treat it the same as your regular menu items, so will your customers, and eventually they’ll accept it as the norm. Instagram is great as well. There are foodies in every city. Find a vegan foodie and DM them and say, “Hey! Come check out this phenomenal new menu item we’re offering!” That creates buzz and good content, which translates to word-of-mouth and more eyes on your brand.

To hear more details about being a vegan and running a vegan operation, watch the full video interview at PMQ.com/Koons.

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