Words Matter

This is Day 9 in a month-long series of posts about owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook

On Day 2 of this series, in recounting a conversation about the café, I shared with you the fact that I’m not vegan.

Maybe you wondered, when you read that, why someone who wasn’t vegan would want to run a vegan café. Maybe you were perplexed. Maybe you were offended. How could I co-opt this word for my own purposes when I wasn’t even a true believer?

It’s a good question. I’m going to try to answer it.

My answer is probably not going to satisfy everyone. That’s okay. We’re all doing our best here.

We inherited our niche from our predecessors. They identified as vegan. Their customers knew and trusted the menu to be entirely plant-based. When we assumed operations, we saw no reason to alienate those established customers.

Plus, we love cooking with vegetables. Besides being good for us, vegetables are really pretty. Colorful, vibrant, amenable to a multitude of beautiful presentations. That’s appealing, too.

Moreover, regardless of our own personal dietary choices, we recognized the need for a plant-based café in this community.

Before Wendy and Matt created this one, there were none.

Now there is one.

Yes. In a city of 120,000. We’re it.

Still, that word. And words matter. So when we first opened our doors, sensitive as we were to this issue, we chose to call ourselves “vegan-friendly” rather than “vegan.” And when we described our food, we used the term “plant-based.”

Over the course of the year, this terminology has given way to the more succinct “vegan.” It’s easier, yes, and requires less explanation.

But it’s not really accurate.

To be clear, anyone following a strict vegan diet can eat at Common Ground and know they’re getting a meal completely free of animal products. No meat or dairy, of course, but also no honey, no bone-char-processed sugar, no marshmallows, no conventional bread products or condiments that might contain whey or lecithin. We’re rigorous, because we want our vegan customers to dine with confidence that they’re eating within their chosen guidelines.

The word “vegan” conveys more than what’s on the plate, however. It’s a philosophical and ethical position that removes animal products not just from the diet but from personal care items, clothing, and the home. It further advocates for the elimination of all instances of animal exploitation within the extant culture.

It’s this broader understanding of the word that makes our use of it less than perfect. We are not advocates, per sé. Our focus is on food.

But guess what. The term “plant-based” is also problematic, because for many it implies a whole-food approach to eating, and while our meals are always centered on fresh vegetables, legumes, seeds, whole grains, and fruit, we do use flour (organic) and vegan-friendly sugar (non-bleached) in some of our baked goods, and we cook with oils. These ingredients are comprised not of whole food but of processed fragments, and strict plant-based adherents do not consume them.

So it’s complicated, right? And new categories and complexities arise with some frequency, which means we have to stay on top of things and anticipate the concerns of our customers.

Most of whom, by the way, are neither vegan nor followers of strict plant-based diets. I know this because I ask. Perhaps half identify as vegetarian or vegan, the other half are simply looking for fresh, healthy options to the typical lunch fare available to them.

Regardless of what they call themselves, they all deserve to know what they’re getting on their plates.

So my answer to this issue of how to describe what sort of cafe we are and what sort of food we serve is to be as transparent as possible about our purpose, our ingredients and our cooking processes. We know what we are, and also what we aren’t. We keep our dishes simple and straightforward, so when we talk about them, our words can also be simple and straightforward. And we start with basic ingredients, always, so we know exactly what’s in everything we serve.

I don’t know what the label is for that. But that’s what we do.