Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A vegetarian walks into a bar. No, make that a fast-food chain, where the veg-head ends up unwittingly getting something non-vegetarian — because the menu doesn’t warn otherwise, and neither do any of the servers.
You may have heard it before, in slightly different versions, because it’s pretty much what went down at Chipotle Mexican Grill last month, when a Maxim editor took to Twitter to complain that he doesn’t eat pork — yet discovered that for a decade the pinto beans he’s been eating from the chain have been made with bacon. And it’s reminiscent of a decade ago, when McDonald’s settled a lawsuit over the undisclosed use of beef extract in its french fries.
On Sunday, I was the one walking into a fast-food chain (although it’s not a chain just yet, because there’s just one, but if all goes well I’m sure chainhood is the plan). I was at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, the latest concept from Chipotle chief executive Steve Ells that debuted in Dupont Circle last week, drawing lines of diners ever since.
I’m not vegetarian, but I’m eating less and less meat, and I decided to try ShopHouse’s tofu as the centerpiece of a rice bowl. So I pointed the server toward brown rice, Chinese broccoli, pickled vegetables, mild green curry (which, pleasantly enough, turned out to not be so mild after all) and chopped peanuts on top. I didn’t ask for a vegetarian meal — and ShopHouse didn’t promise me one.
All was well enough until I tweeted about how quickly I shoveled it down, and got a response from a Twitter tipster (a Twipster?) telling me that the curry sauces aren’t vegetarian and should be labeled as such. I responded that I’m not vegetarian, but took a stab to guess that s/he must mean that there’s fish sauce in the curry, which s/he confirmed. My Twipster said s/he had called it to the attention of folks at Chipotle corporate headquarters and demanded that they disclose such to customers, and was upset that it hadn’t happened.
So I checked the company’s Web site, didn't see any mention of fish sauce, went back to double-check that there were no such notices on the menus, and to place another order. Here's what happened the second time:
I got the tofu and brown rice again, but when it came time to pick the vegetable, I chose the long beans and asked the server, “Are they vegetarian?” I figured that would give him a clue about my dietary choices in case, as at Chipotle, he might then decide to disclose the ingredients in the green curry sauce I was about to choose. But when I chose it, he started to ladle before I interrupted and said, “Is that vegetarian, too?” He paused and said, “Well, there’s fish sauce in it. Is that a problem?”
“No,” I replied. “I just like to know.”
That’s not what should have happened, said Chipotle’s director of communications, Chris Arnold. He said the procedure at ShopHouse is supposed to be similar to that at Chipotle, where if a customer orders a meal that has all vegetarian ingredients, the staff is supposed to volunteer that the curry sauces are made with fish sauce and therefore are not vegetarian.
When I told him about my visits, he said, “I will take that up with the restaurant. It should be communicated.”
In the recent Beangate case at Chipotle, Maxim editor Seth Porges started an e-mail and Twitter campaign when he, a non-pork eater “for religious and cultural reasons,” discovered that for the past 10 years he had been getting bacon along with the pinto beans in his burrito. The bacon was listed on the chain’s Web site, but not on the in-store menu boards. And, like at ShopHouse, Chipotle’s policy had been to disclose the bacon to customers when they avoided all other meat in their orders, but not if they didn’t, and because Porges also got chicken in his burrito, it never came up. Until one server told him, and he “immediately felt ill and queezy (sic),” according to an e-mail he sent to Chipotle executives.
Porges suggested to Chipotle that the company change its signage and menu to reflect the bacon’s presence, and within two hours, he got a phone call from Steve Ells himself, who said he was ordering the entire chain to do just that. More recently, a Jewish attorney sued Chipotle, saying servers there specifically told him there was no bacon in the pinto beans.
I asked Arnold if, as at Chipotle, there might be plans at ShopHouse to label the curries as non-vegetarian on the menu boards and the paper menus.
“We try not to use our menus as ingredient declarations, because where does it stop?” he said in a phone interview. “There are lots and lots of ingredients in our restaurants, but at the same time we realize people have diet restrictions and issues, whether it’s philosophical or religious or because of allergens, and we certainly try to make that information available. And we try to train our crew to be knowledgeable about what’s in the food so they can provide information and answer qustions.”
A decade ago, it was McDonald’s on the griddle for the beef-in-fries disclosure. Harish Bharti filed suit on behalf of vegetarians and Hindus who don’t eat beef for religious reason. In that case, McDonald’s didn’t claim the fries were vegetarian, but the only clue on the list of ingredients on its Web site was “natural flavor” that the company later admitted meant beef extract. The company settled the suit for millions of dollars.
In ShopHouse’s case, a first glance on the Web site’s menu page and the section for the curries wouldn’t indicate the presence of fish sauce. (For green curry, the site reads, “A variety of freshly ground herbs lend a floral note to this mild coconut milk based curry.”) But Arnold directed me to click on a little circle to the right labeled “Details,” and sure enough, a pop-up window describes the process of making the sauces, including: “For our curries we take tons of fresh herbs, chilis, dried spices and even flowers, and grind them into a paste. This fragrant paste is then fried and mixed with coconut milk, which gives the curries their rich, creamy texture. Finally, the curries are seasoned with palm sugar and fish sauce.”
Arnold says that in developing the menu, the ShopHouse team “went to great lengths” not to use it in every dish, so that more of the menu items would be vegetarian-friendly. “Fish sauce is practically the salt of Southeast Asian food,” he said. “It’s used in practically everything. Curries are typically made with fish sauce, and ours are no exception.”
Who bears more responsibility for making sure that a vegetarian diner, or one with any other restrictions, eats according to those choices? The restaurant, or the diner? My anonymous Twipster describes him/herself as an “avid plant-based eater,” a Chipotle customer since 2005 and an owner of long options and shares of Chipotle. And s/he thinks restaurateurs needs to help in these cases, because diners are so ignorant, and not always blissfully so. “To this day a lot of vegans/vegetarians I meet are unaware that fish sauce is used in virtually every dish in Thailand,”s/he wrote me in one Tweet.
“But if they want to eat a certain way, shouldn’t they ask?” I replied. “Not to mention learn about a cuisine?”
“Perhaps,” s/he wrote. “I am a master now of Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Italian, Middle Eastern cuisine. I know exactly how everything is prepared.”
Colleen O’Brien, director of communications at PETA, thinks the responsibility is squarely on ShopHouse’s shoulders.
“It is absolutely the restaurant’s duty not to mislead their customers,” she said in a phone interview. “If they have a dish that’s seemingly vegetarian, a dish that no one would think would be anything else, and yet it’s laced with some kind of meat product, they should label it that way — or, even better, make it without the meat product.”
For his part, Porges doesn’t think Chipotle was being deceptive in the case of Beangate. “I just think they failed to realize this issue would be important to a large number of their customers, and they probably thought that not mentioning it on menus simply wouldn’t be a big deal,” he wrote in an e-mail.
As for the responsibility issue, he said, “I don’t think it should be a customer’s responsibility to look on a Web site before they go to a restaurant — that’s a crazy amount of planning just to get a burrito. And while many hole-in-the-wall taquerias probably stuff bacon in everything they have, Chipotle is a national chain, and predictability is part of the reason people go to places like it. That’s always been the trade-off with chains: You get food that can be bland, sterile, and middle-of-the-road. But you know EXACTLY what you’re getting.”