Veg Out with HappyCow

We interviewed Eric Brent, founder of HappyCow , the Vegetarian/Vegan (or as HappyCow says, “veg*n”) resource for traveling and eating out, to find out more about this cool website that has been helping Compassionate Eaters for eleven years.

MJR:
Why would I use HappyCow instead of Yelp? Or OpenTable?

HC:
While other sites may have a technical advantage and more users overall, HappyCow is the authority on vegan and vegetarian restaurants. We’ve been helping people everywhere find veg & health food since 1999.

The majority of HappyCow members are vegetarians and vegans themselves, which means that the information contributed and published is more tuned into the needs and concerns of veg*ns and is far more accurate (from a veg perspective) than conventional/mainstream sites like Yelp, OpenTable, or Google local.

As a 20+ year vegan myself, I’d much rather read reviews of veg*n restaurant written by fellow veg*ns, rather than from meat eaters. The perspective is totally different, and that’s why more traveling veg*n do prefer and trust HappyCow.

MJR:
Perfect! So, is there an app for this? What about for Droid?

HC:
Yes, HappyCow has an app for the iPhone (VegOut), one for Android (HappyCow VeginOut, which works for Droid), one for Palm Pre (HappyCow VeginOut), and one for Symbian OS. Soon we will release an app for Windows 7. You can see details here .

MJR:
We’d love to hear how the vegetarian/vegan landscape has expanded in the past 11 years. Were there even restaurants that were solely vegan or vegetarian back then? (okay, we’re kinda kidding about that last one).

HC:
Vegetarian and vegan restaurants have always existed, as they did back in the 1990s throughout parts of the world. The good news is that the drive and appreciation for eating healthier food, vegetarian and vegan food has picked up tremendous momentum, especially over the last few years.

As more people are learning about eating healthy and more wholesome foods, they naturally progress toward making more plant-based food choices. Even mainstream NON-vegetarians like Oprah, Dr. Oz, Dr. Andrew Weils, chef Jaime Oliver and Mario Batali, to name a few, have all in some way advocated eating more plant foods for health! Eating natural, vegetarian and vegan is definitely becoming more acceptable and even cool.

I created HappyCow in 1999 because I was a veg traveler who could not find an Internet resource to help with eating out while on the road at that time. It was always a drag to visit a new city and struggle to eat “safe” food. In fact, I would often end up spending hours searching for vegan/vegetarian food.

Now HappyCow makes it easy for traveling vegheads like myself. And especially with the new mobile apps, it’s like pie.

MJR:
It is! Which may cause some people to wonder, is it really necessary to have a guide like this? Can’t one go to any restaurant and expect there will be something ‘safe’ to eat?

HC:
It’s true you can visit many restaurants in the bigger cities and find at least one or two vegetarian (but not always vegan) options. Whether you feel the food is “safe” or not, that depends on you.

I personally prefer to eat at and support pure vegetarian restaurants. Eating in a meat restaurant where the place smells like cooked flesh, or watching people order veal and steak, etc., or wondering whether the kitchen uses the same utensils to cut and cook my food with the meat stuff, that bothers me. I know it bothers other veg*ns, too.

Also, often times, ordering in a “regular” restaurant can be a challenge. It’s like going to an unknown territory. For instance, in an Asian food restaurant, a menu item may read “Fried Vegetable,” yet it’s possible that the dish contains fish oil, shrimp paste, or possibly other animal byproducts. You always have to ask!

HappyCow listings are defined by the level of “veg-ness” (i.e. raw / vegan / vegetarian / or veg-friendly). We give our visitors the whole picture and provide trustworthy reviews from fellow vegetarians, vegans and health food eaters. That’s why HappyCow has a loyal following.

MJR:
You mark some restaurants as Veg-friendly… even though they’re not vegan or vegetarian. But that’s definitely not all restaurants. Who won’t make the cut? What’s your criteria for Veg-friendly?

HC:
This is one of the more complicated issues with running HappyCow. The cut varies by location (e.g. big city vs. remote towns) and the scale is case-by-case. To get a better perspective on this please see our submission guide , which provides an overview of how we decide. However, each submission is reviewed and investigated.

MJR:
Can you name a few major restaurants or chains that you recommend HappyCow Compassionate Eaters should NEVER EVER go to? Similarly, which restaurants have failed the HappyCow criteria for being veg friendly?

HC:
We prefer to keep neutral about telling people what to and not to do. I can tell you that the most common type of submission that fails our policy is the conventional restaurants known for their standard, meat-based menus. In order to get listed on HappyCow, a non-veg place has to demonstrate that it’s going the extra distance to accommodate veg*ns and are not just about leaving out the meat.

MJR:
Okay, two-part question: We’re Vegan but we have to go to Ruth’s Chris Steak House for a client dinner. What is your suggestion for:
1. Getting out of it in the most tactful way possible i.e. how would you suggest a better spot in a polite way…
2. Ordering once you are there. Would you call ahead to the Chef? What would you ask for?

HC:
1. First look on HappyCow to see if we list more veg-friendly options in your area. If yes, you might say, “That sounds okay, but I heard about this other place called {restaurant name} which is supposed to have very good…. Maybe we’re missing out if we don’t give it a try! How about it?”
2. To be safest, definitely call ahead and let the restaurant know you’ll be coming in and request veg*n. You can pre-address all of your needs without doing this in front of your client. Then once there you can just mention to the server that you called in and spoke with so and so and bypass all the veg dialog.

MJR:
We have Users from all around the U.S. – we’d love to know your favorite veg*n spots in various cities… can you give us five of them and tell us why?

HC:
Here are 5 HappyCow member favorites, though there are many more (you’ll find it on the site):
1 & 2) The Veggie Grill and Native Foods Café , both with several locations each in Southern California. Fast growing vegan fast food brands frequented by meat-eaters as well as vegheads! It’s indulgent food colorfully presented.

3) Blossoming Lotus in Portland, Oregon. Healthy, creative, and delicious gourmet vegan cuisine and raw food.

4) Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Natural and organic food and spirits from around the globe. Exotic interior decor with wall fountain. All profits go to organizations that promote animal welfare and a vegan lifestyle.

5) Shandal’s Vegetarian Café in Bridgeport Connecticut. Casual cafeteria-style set up featuring Ital cuisine using wheat gluten, soy, and veggies. Generous portions.

MJR:
Thanks for the suggestions! What cities have NO completely veg*n restaurants? Just so we know to never go there.

HC:
Actually most cities in the world still have no fully vegetarian restaurants. In the U.S. vegetarians are a minority and make up around 3% of the total population. In the U.S., you’re best to avoid the middle and the south as a general rule.

MJR:
HappyCow’s Eating Guide is international… and you’ve traveled a LOT. Can you please give people some tips for surviving when they are abroad can’t read the menu/speak the language/are stuck in a meat-eating village, etc.?

HC:
First things first – Go to HappyCow and see what’s located nearby the destination to which you are headed. Print that list and take it with you. If the pickings are slim, learn how to say or get in writing the words that will save you!

It’s quite easy with Google. Translate to print out some common phrases before leaving, like “I don’t eat meat,” “no eggs,” “no milk,” etc… Practice saying these key words. Once you arrive at your destination, find a local to help you practice saying the words. If you’re really lazy, just show the writing on paper to someone, like your waitstaff. Worst case scenario: seek out a local farmers market and buy fruits and veggies you can eat raw.

MJR:
What else do you review besides restaurants? And what factors should Compassionate Eaters keep in mind when they’re drinking and traveling or doing other things besides just ‘Eating Out’?

HC:
We’ve recently added 6 new categories to our guide in addition to the restaurants and health food stores aspect. Visitors can find/add/review vegan bakeries, vegan shops, veg B&Bs, veg catering companies, veg organizations, and farmers markets.
HappyCow also features a dedicated vegetarian travel section which includes tips to staying healthy while traveling to Asia as well as a guide to bed & breakfasts and accommodations.

Traveling impacts the environment considering the enormous amounts of fuel that’s required to power cars/buses/airplanes… BUT when you patron a pure vegetarian business, you are in fact off-setting your carbon emission, because plant food is so much more sustainable to grow than cattle and animals raised for meat consumption. Eating veg is just more earth friendly every way you look at it.

So, in addition to being compassionate, you are living GREEN when you eat more plant based food! You are truly what you eat, so eat well… with HappyCow, of course!

Thanks HappyCow!

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3 Responses to “Veg Out with HappyCow”

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  1. Lori F says:

    I have used Happy Cow’s website to help my boyfriend on hs business trips. It is very helpful to have the list with you, but the other great thing is that I could copy and paste the listings in an email to him. I highly recommend reading the reviews on this site, which is great for specific dietary needs.

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  2. Kim J says:

    Whenever I travel somewhere new, I always print a HappyCow list of all the veg restaurants in that area. Thanks HappyCow!

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  3. Susan Asato says:

    Happy Cow’s website is so valuable whenever we travel out of town. I agree with the suggestion to call ahead to ask if there are any vegan options available. We’ve had especially good luck with high-end restaurants…the chefs made us such incredible vegan dishes that made the meat-eaters around us wish they had ordered vegan too!

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