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Vegan flips out: Should restaurants offer discounts for dietary restrictions?

Vegan flips out: A vegan man from New Jersey argued a restaurant should discount his meal after he brought his own pasta. The story has gone viral, and raises the question; how far should restaurants go to accommodate diners with dietary restrictions?

The Runaway Spoon
A vegan man from New Jersey debated the price of his pasta after ordering a custom dish at a restaurant. This simple, tomato brie and herb pata is vegetarian.

Jack Litsky, a vegan from Marlboro, N.J., made headlines when he pushed hard for a discount at Monticello restaurant in Red Bank in February.

Did he push too hard – or not hard enough?

Mr. Litsky, who often brings his own pasta when he dines out had developed a system for ensuring he and his wife, who is also a vegan, got the meal they wanted. The couple would bring whole wheat pasta, and ask to have it topped with sauce, mushrooms, onions, and red pepper.

If visiting a restaurant for the first time, Litsky and his wife called ahead to make sure the kitchen could accommodate them. They even wrote their orders down on cards to hand to the waiter and chef to make the process simpler. Litsky told the New Jersey Star-Ledger restaurants typically give them a discount for bringing their own pasta.

"If a pasta dish is $15, they will charge us $11 or $12 because we brought our own," he said. "We don’t ask for a discount but they usually give one."

Litsky said he and his wife had visited Monticello twice before without a problem, and had been charged $12 each for their meal. But when the Litskys returned to Monticello in February with friends, they ran into issues with their bill.

Litsky said the meals ordered from the menu, which included fish and chicken, were about $23 or $24 dollars each, and he and his wife were charged $24 each for their pasta. Believing there must have been an error, Litsky asked to speak to the manager, Caterin Giambalzo, who said it was no mistake. Ms. Giambalzo explained the old price had been determined by a different manager, and she was charging him for a custom meal. Litsky had also wanted to use a $50 coupon to pay the bill, which she said could not be used for custom orders.

The manager and Litsky haggled over the price, and when he threatened not to pay she called the police. He eventually paid the whole bill with his American Express card and left. Later, he contested the bill through American Express, and Giambalzo refunded him $12. She told the Star-Ledger that there had been a misunderstanding and she didn't want to upset a customer. 

How do other vegans view this incident?

Melissa Pierce, a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut, who is a vegetarian now, but was vegan for several years, says she agrees with Litsky.

"It's not fair to have to pay extra for something you're not having," she says. "You're charged extra for adding avocado, or cheese, or tomato on a burger, why shouldn't you get a discount if you don't get a plate that's normally served with meat?"

Ms. Pierce says she used to bring her own vegan butter to restaurants for her breakfast toast, but seldom asked for a discount. 

Quick-Service Restaurant (QSR) Magazine, an online publication that covers restaurant news and gives tips on restaurant management and menu development, writes that catering to dietary restrictions is a must. Instead of offering discounts on custom orders, QSR encourages restaurants to develop specific menu items for customers with special diets, and to clearly communicate those options to customers.

 QSR pointed to several restaurants that are going the extra mile to accommodate customers' dietary restrictions, including Chick-fil-A, which offers low-carb, low-fat, and gluten-free menu items, and has an app which displays menu items that contain specified allergens.

QSR also praised Menchies, the frozen yogurt chain, which offers gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, vegan, low-carb, kosher, and fat-free options. 

“Creating products that meet dietary needs is the respectful thing to do,” Menchie’s president and CEO Amit Kleinberger told QSR. “Beyond that, communicating those products to guests effectively can create a win-win scenario for both guests and our restaurants.”

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