As more vegetarian restaurants open up in the United States, there’s an opportunity for strengthening food activism. The restaurant business is a fickle industry in which most entrepreneurs fail miserably due to rising food costs, rent, and inconsistent customer support. But it seems that restaurants that connect with the community and adopt new models of dining are doing just fine. Instead of approaching the restaurant industry with traditional capitalistic values, they’ve built a business model around community profit sharing and linked their business to a social cause.
Clearly, vegetarian restaurants aren’t the only food spots that have adopted this method of business. However, vegetarian spots are at a certain disadvantage being that the majority of the country, and likely the local community, do not practice plant-based eating lifestyles. So what’s the allure to a vegetarian restaurant if you’re accustomed to dining with a plethora of meat options? Well, if you’re like the restaurant Home Grown in Atlanta, the public knows that the owners grow the food in an urban garden ran by a local community that shares in the profits. If you’re the soon-to-be vegetable co-op Sweet Work in Harlem, the public is invested in your success because you’ve built in a worker-ownership model that reaches out to local foster kids that have out grown the system for employment and then after a set period of time, gives them shares in the company.
These untraditional forms of capitalism build businesses that are invested in community and extend food activism to combat overlapping oppressions, such as local poverty. Whether a vegetarian restaurant, farm, or store enter the community, it ought to consider the local ramifications of its presence and the power it has to make a difference in surrounding neighborhoods. If facets of vegetarianism are built on food consciousness and combating exploitive meat production, those same principles should be applied to vegetarian businesses, so that we’re not giving oppression a plant-based face.
But of course, vegetarian businesses are free to practice whatever model of business they choose. It’s not required that vegetarian restaurants participate in the locavore movement, and source their food locally. It’s not incumbent upon vegetarian stores to give workers a share in store profits. But imagine if more vegetarian businesses did and how it would reposition vegetarianism as an ally to struggling communities and lower class demographics. Vegetarianism might just become a movement that goes beyond accommodating privileged races and classes. It might just become a solution for everyone.