Kiki Adami might not sound like the poster child for converting omnivore restaurants into vegan ones. Her Greenwich Village health food restaurant GustOrganics closed last year after switching from paleo to vegan, a choice that made her the target of angry emails from "Crossfit people" and eventually a lawsuit from investors that wiped out funds. But Adami still believes that restaurants — not to mention, animals and the environment — can benefit financially from adding more vegan items, and her latest project Veganizer NYC aims to do just that. The company turns non-vegan restaurant menus vegan for one night pop-ups, with the hope that the chefs will start adding more vegan items or host vegan nights, Adami says. The big, dreamy goal: For every New York restaurant menu to be 50 percent vegan. "If all restaurants had half their menu vegan, things would be so much better in the world," she says.
For one, Adami notes that GustOrganics was making more money the summer they turned vegan than any other summer. The lawsuit from investors drained the restaurant of cash and led to the closure. Now, she works as a cruise director and works on Veganizer as a passion project. "For me, it’s simple," Adami says. "I do it for the animals."
'If these restaurants can veganize, anything can veganize'
Since starting last year, Adami has helped transformed five restaurant menus vegan for pop-ups, including Pagani, Cabalito, and Cafe Frida. The process for chef Hadara Slok to help the in-house chefs develop the offerings takes about two months, and the resulting menu looks virtually identical, except all the items come meat-and-dairy-free. Keg 229’s pizza burger with fried mozzarella on top turned into a seitan-based burger with vegan mozzarella, and any items with mayo use Vegenaise instead. Adami mostly reaches out to restaurants that don’t cater to vegans at all, such as Keg 229, which focuses on burgers. "I want to show people that if these restaurants can veganize, anything can veganize," she says.
So far, several of the restaurants have decided to either keep offering a few vegan items or host more vegan-only nights. Keg 229 owner Calli Tedesco is considering hosting a Veganizer event at her wine bar across the street, Bin 220, and Pagani is considering hosting a vegan night every month. Cabalito, a small Salvadorian restaurant on the Lower East Side, started offering more items like mushroom and bean papusas that can be ordered without cheese after the Veganizer event, says owner Randy Rodriguez. "Some of the most popular items on our menu are the vegan items," he says.
Still, though doing the vegan nights brought in a robust crowd for a Monday night, not everyone is sold on going half vegan quite yet. Rodriguez says his restaurant is small, and the labor required to add vegan cheese permanently is too much for them to handle currently. Tedesco says Keg 229 has a solid base of burger customers already, and she’s not yet sure that adding vegan items will bring in enough extra business. "I would have to see a real bump in sales in order to change," she says. "We’ve already established our success, and I don’t know that I want to go changing."
But Tedesco is open to keep working with Veganizer, and for Adami, that’s a success in itself. Many restaurateurs tell Adami that they don’t get try vegan due to fear of losing money, reputation, or respect from regular clientele. Setting them up with accounts at vegan suppliers and putting them on the radar of vegan diners makes it easier, she says. "They have all the tools," she says. "They basically are prepared to go vegan at any point in time if they choose to." And she insists that it doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in business. Restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, who wants to turn nearly all 15 of his restaurants and bars vegan, says food sales at cocktail bar Mother of Pearl have doubled since it went vegan.
Tedesco believes that fewer meat products will help the environment, obesity, and animal cruelty, and as a former restaurateur, this is her way of helping, she says. Another chapter of Veganizer has already been set up in Brussels, and ideally, all major metropolitan areas will also have advocates fighting to make menus more vegan. "I’m working for a big picture," she says.