clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Diners sit in tables in a row with portraits hanging on a wall above them
Diners at MeMe’s Diner
Gary He/Eater

Filed under:

How Diners Pressured NYC’s Restaurateurs to Be More ‘Ethical’

From zero-waste initiatives to a greater focus on LGBT inclusivity, NYC restaurants are marketing themselves as “ethical” to keep up with customer demands

Among the New York City bars and restaurants that draw a crowd rain or shine, no matter what day of the week, is Mother of Pearl. Diners in the tropical, palm-printed bar cozy up on floral-patterned banquettes and tuck into whimsical pan-Asian plates like sweet-and-sour bao buns and a hefty slab of milk bread topped with a crispy katsu-style protein.

The gambit: Everything is vegan. Those bao buns contain a rich, cauliflower-based filling. The milk bread topping? A toothsome panko-crusted cut of seitan. The animal-free ethos carries over to the cocktail program too, which eschews common animal-based ingredients like honey syrup and egg whites.

Owner Ravi DeRossi, a longtime East Village restaurant and bar impresario, has been converting all of his businesses to vegan since 2016. While the shift is mainly due to a personal commitment to the environment and animal welfare, DeRossi also says there’s a shift in customer preferences. More and more, diners are demanding bars and restaurants that are both healthy and aligned with their own ethical concerns. “Our sales have almost doubled, and we have a dinner rush now,” he says. “The consciousness of the world is changing.”

It’s a sign that an increasing number of NYC diners want to be more engaged consumers — and rising demand for sustainability and vegetable-focused dining offers not just moral, but also financial incentives for chefs and restaurateurs to market their kitchens as environmentally concerned.

In New York, it’s translated to more overtly plant-based restaurants that includes DeRossi’s venues, the vegan cantina Jajaja Plantas Mexicana, and the By Chloe chain of Instagram-friendly fast-casual vegan restaurants. HappyCow, a prominent vegan/vegetarian website and app, named New York the second most vegan-friendly city in the world after London, with 111 vegan establishments within a 5-mile radius of the city as of 2019.

The conspicuously ethical consumer, in other words, is more powerful than ever in shaping the city’s dining scene.

But even as more and more people identify themselves as “plant-based” eaters for both health and environmental reasons, the definition of what it means to choose restaurants based on ethics is no longer limited to what’s on the plate. The concerns of the ethical diner are evolving: Demands for fairly paid employees, workplaces that don’t foster sexual harassment, and wider community inclusion may finally be coming to the fore of what matters in creating an ethically sound dining scene.

Several plates of food sit on a counter while a chef works in the kitchen
Emma’s Torch offers workplace training and job placement for refugees
Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny

It makes sense that broadly labeled environmentalism has become the most salient “political” issue for the food and beverage industry. Ethical ingredient sourcing ties in neatly with earlier farm-to-table dining trends, and a growing number of people are nixing animal products in favor of “plant-based” options.

Eliminating meat is a crucial step in combating the food industry’s very real negative impact on the planet. Animal agriculture, for example, is responsible for 14.5 percent of all human-produced carbon emissions, with beef making up 41 percent of that number. Other sustainability issues dovetail neatly with the day-to-day concerns of restaurants, too, like the food waste crisis. In America, 40 percent of all food produced for human consumption is wasted at a time when nearly 1.2 million New Yorkers face hunger annually, according to City Harvest.

In New York, consumer demand has turned “sustainable” into one of the hottest and most profitable buzzwords in the game. Google search interest in NYC for terms like “vegan restaurants” and “sustainability” has risen in the past decade, and the food waste industry — that is, businesses that repurpose edible food that would otherwise be discarded — as a whole was valued at $46.7 billion in 2019.

“Up until a few years ago, there was a stigma around vegan dining. Most places weren’t good and the food was bland,” DeRossi says. “But we know factory farming is one of the leading causes of climate change, so we created cool environments for diners who wanted to take that first step in eating less meat.”

Though there are policy efforts, like a new Sanitation Department proposal aiming to expand requirements for mandatory composting of food waste and organics, consumer demand has resulted in restaurants being proactive about issues without regulatory pressure. Beyond veganism, sustainability has gone from being a fringe concern to a full-blown mainstream interest in major cities, says Jonathan Deutsch, who directs the Food Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia and advises restaurants and consumer packaged-goods brands. He points to programs like the James Beard Foundation’s Creating a Full-Use Kitchen course or the National Resources Defense Council’s Save the Food campaign, which raise awareness about food waste and provide resources for industry professionals looking to combat it.

Now, there’s a rise in restaurants that are proactively anti-waste — focusing not just on reducing carbon emissions at the agricultural level, but seeking to ensure all edible food makes it onto the plate. “People have voted with their wallets,” Deutsch says. “In the last few years, there’s been a renaissance of consumer understanding of sustainability.”

It’s a philosophy that reaches all levels of the culinary ecosystem. A few months ago, Fort Greene’s Mettā reopened as a sustainable wine bar, Rhodora, in a bid to become “the first truly zero-waste restaurant in New York City.” There’s a consultancy called Foodprint Group focused entirely on reducing the waste and carbon footprint of restaurants, and it’s worked with businesses as varied as chic all-day cafe West-bourne and Jewish bakery Breads to Eataly. Separately, even the fast-casual salad chain Just Salad, which has more than 30 locations globally, has pledged to send zero waste to landfills by 2022.

Restaurants and bars that aren’t fully zero-waste are also becoming more transparent about reusing ingredients in dishes or promoting their waste-minimization efforts, such as pickling scraps or using whole animals in the restaurant instead of only prime cuts.

When Sunday in Brooklyn opened in Williamsburg in 2016, it touted a pickling and fermentation program that would reuse scraps for pastries and brines for cocktails. The whole advertised ethos of Bay Area-based chain Belcampo, which opened a Hudson Yards location in 2019, is building a more sustainable meat environment by serving meat from animals that have been raised humanely. East Village restaurant Ducks Eatery has used viral foods, like a smoked watermelon that looks like a ham, to talk about creative ways to reduce meat consumption.

A woman sits at a table, holding a glass of white wine. On the table, there are various small-plate appetizers including artichokes, olives, pickled onions, and hardboiled eggs.
Rhodora is a “zero-waste” natural wine bar in Fort Greene
Liz Clayman/Rhodora [Official Photo]

And when all-day cafe and bar Hunky Dory debuted in Crown Heights last year, owner Claire Sprouse talked in opening press about how she aims for more sustainable practices by using off-cuts of meat, local garden composting, and lots of dehydration and fermentation. An onion dip utilizes unused egg whites, while one of the cocktails employs cucumber seeds from an appetizer.

“You’ve got progressive restaurants like High Street on Market in Philly and High Street on Hudson in NYC that are pickling their vegetable scraps to make chow chow, for example,” Deutsch says. “But instead of restaurants having that be a chef’s little secret like before, they’re now being upfront about it and marketing that. It makes for not just a great culinary experience, but a thoughtful one — especially from a consumer education standpoint.”

The successful integration of eco- and animal-friendly practices in the mainstream is in part a testament to the power of the concerned diner. But some say that the same care and attention hasn’t been afforded to other issues that equally impact the hospitality industry, such as gentrification, inclusive hiring, and labor justice.

Take, for example, the case of By Chloe, one of the most successful pioneers in the new-school vegan movement. Though it’s proven that meat-free (and supposedly more ethical) concepts can become mass-market successes, the company has also shown plenty of signs that it might not be a gold standard in labor issues. In 2017, its namesake and co-founder, Chloe Coscarelli, was ousted following a high-profile legal showdown. By early 2019, Coscarelli and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio had filed another lawsuit against By Chloe partner James Haber, whom Coscarelli has accused of ongoing harassment regarding her new vegan venture with Colicchio. Meanwhile, By Chloe has a two-star rating on the employer review site Glassdoor, with current and former employees alleging rampant verbal abuse and unfair working conditions. The company, however, continues to grow, having secured $31 million in its latest round of funding.

Potential hypocrisies aside, there are signs that New York diners have an appetite for broadening their definition of what constitutes ethical consumption. Several of the city’s notable mission-driven businesses have seen success in recent years. The international breads of Hot Bread Kitchen, a nonprofit that trains women to have careers in the culinary industry, can be found across the city, including at restaurants like Untitled. Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit restaurant in Carroll Gardens that offers workplace training and job placement for refugees, attracts regular diners looking for dishes like black-eyed pea hummus and lamb meatballs shellacked in a tomato-pepper relish, alongside the ability to actively use their buying power for good, says founder Kerry Brodie.

“Where you decide to have brunch, that’s a powerful decision,” Brodie says. “We have people who come week after week, or use their company budget to order catering with us, yes, because they love the food, but also because it’s a simple and sure way to articulate their values.”

Brodie hopes that more businesses can engage in a more intersectional approach to ethical dining, where employee rights go hand-in-hand with sustainability. “We work with businesses of all sizes and types to find opportunities for our students,” she says. “And while [environmentalism is] not our purview, we like to find businesses that share similar values, like sourcing local ingredients and employing sustainable practices. It shows they care about their environmental impact, and, hopefully, also their workers.”

NYC diners (or at the very least, progressive media and engaged social media users) may also claim credit for rewriting the rules on offensive decor and cultural appropriation in the culinary arena. The Palm, known for caricatures of famous people on its walls, removed ones of accused rapists Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein after customer outcry, and historic steakhouse Keens got rid of its blackface posters following diner dissent. Lucky Lee’s, a fast-casual, white-owned “clean” Chinese restaurant, closed not long after opening last year. At its debut, the restaurant drew online ire for Instagram posts that characterized most Chinese food as “oily” and “icky.” Social media users reacted swiftly, many of them Asian American, accusing the restaurant’s owner, nutritionist Arielle Haspel, of both appropriating and disrespecting the cuisine.

Then there’s the ripple effect of the #MeToo movement, which has, at least for now, taken down people like disgraced celebrity chef Mario Batali and the Spotted Pig restaurateur Ken Friedman. Following accusations of misconduct, diners were still going to their restaurants, but over time, foot traffic declined. Friedman saw other business deals fall through, in part due to public outcry, and Batali was forced to divest from the empire he shared with Joe Bastianich.

Eggs with seeded chile oil and greens
Eggs with seeded chile oil and greens at MeMe’s Diner
Gary He/Eater

It’s not clear how long the impact of immediate diner outcry will last. Though Batali’s out of his restaurants, his website recently teased (and subsequently removed) language suggesting a comeback in the near future. Then there’s rising-star sommelier Anthony Cailan, who stepped down from his position as beverage director of the Nolitan hotel amidst several allegations of sexual misconduct. In the New York Times’s coverage of the story, however, it was revealed that there were in fact “many more offenders, more powerful than Mr. Cailan, who remain protected by silence and fear.”

There’s also still a major lack of mainstream dialogue around issues like equal pay and inclusive hiring, which tend to be less public-facing to diners, as factors in ethical dining, argues Ashtin Berry, a bartender, sommelier, and the hospitality activist behind Radical Xchange. Just look at diversity and equity in the hospitality industry: According to a 2014 report by the nonprofit Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, broadly defined ethnic and racial minorities make up 50 percent of all hourly employees, but only 31 percent of general managers and 12 percent of corporate directors.

“I don’t know if we can say the notion of ethical dining exists in the mainstream when it hasn’t even reached the level of basic human rights,” Berry says. “At most, the conversation people are having is about whether their food is organic or environmentally friendly. But what about the people serving it? Do they have rights? Do they have health care? Are they being paid a fair wage?”

At times, restaurants that are the most vocal about marketing their sustainability fail to pass other litmus tests of ethics, she says. For Berry, it’s a matter of looking around the physical space that the restaurant or bar inhabits. All-white clientele and front-of-house staff, for example, might provide some indication about who the space is actually built for and who its ownership prioritizes, which is particularly important in gentrifying neighborhoods where longtime residents are being pushed out. According to CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute, the arrival of new, upmarket restaurants in lower-income neighborhoods with a high population of people of color “can signify that a neighborhood is trendy and ripe for gentrification.”

“New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, so why are there so many restaurants and bars where all you can see is white people?” Berry says. “Look and ask yourself: Does it look like a queer-friendly space? Is there age diversity? Is there a way for people with disabilities to eat or dine in their spaces? If it’s in an area of Brooklyn that’s being rapidly gentrified, does everything start at $20 or is there a happy hour option where cocktails start at $6 or $7? Inclusivity is built into a space in many ways.”

Some restaurants use language of inclusion, like self-described queer restaurant MeMe’s Diner. And plenty of restaurants and bars, such as Brooklyn’s Bed-Vyne Brew, open with the goal of preserving space for minorities in gentrifying neighborhoods.

But unlike with restaurant sustainability efforts, there aren’t as many diner-targeted marketing words or design elements that signal a business’s inclusionary goals; places like MeMe’s don’t put “queer” on the front door. Such a public announcement isn’t necessary, says Berry. She cites the marvelously relaxed Crown Heights cocktail bar Diamond Reef — the brainchild of the Attaboy team — as one example of a structurally inclusive space that doesn’t go out of its way to market itself as such. “They’ve never put out a message about being inclusive, but when you walk in there you see folks from every walk of life,” Berry says. “That’s a statement on how they construct space.”

Rossi echoes this sentiment, noting that restaurants don’t necessarily need to market themselves as “inclusive,” they simply need to walk the talk. “Maybe it’s because I’m a person of color myself, but I’ve always been conscious of human rights in our restaurants,” says DeRossi, whose parents are immigrants from India. “The highest-ranking person in our company has almost always been a woman. We seek out the best talent available, and more often than not that includes people of all genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.”

Despite difficulty in marketing inclusion, these are issues that should be considered when discussing ethical dining, Berry says. And while it’s easy to be skeptical of a future where the conversation about inclusive hiring or HR policy is as palatable as the buzz around upcycled foods, the past influence of the diner suggests that it’s possible. Consumers played a critical role in demanding and advancing the zero-waste and sustainable agenda, and restaurants that listened to their customers have benefited from it.

The power starts in asking questions to let business owners know what diners care about. If you can inquire about the provenance of your tomatoes, surely you can also ask about why there aren’t any female bartenders at your favorite cocktail joint.

“If you’ve formed a relationship with people at your favorite restaurant and bar, ask them why you’ve never seen a woman behind the bar or a person of color working front-of-house,” Berry says. “Asking the question doesn’t have to be high-stakes, but it does make a difference.”

Dan Q. Dao is a freelance writer covering travel and culture.