It’s A Plant! Vegetarian Restaurant Lures In Meat-Lovers — And It’s Working

It's Saturday afternoon in the Dutch city of The Hague. Lonneke de Leeuw and Danny Dubbeldam just ordered a steak tartare sandwich and a chicken burger at The Vegetarian Butcher's new restaurant, De Vleesch Lobby, one of the few vegetarian eateries with plant-based meat and fish as its central theme.

The couple is eager to try some of the meat substitutes on the menu, which are made from soy, wheat protein, wheat starch and lupin. A month ago, De Leeuw, 23, watched a video about a slaughterhouse. "Since then, I've been trying to give up meat. I like the taste, but I don't want the animals to suffer for my food." She says that she also feels healthier and more energetic since she stopped eating meat.

Dubbeldam, 27, doesn't mind eating meat substitutes a few times a week. The two have tried several brands so far. "Most aren't bad," he says. "We're so used to eating meat with our meals," De Leeuw adds, "but it's not really necessary. There are plenty of other healthy food options." Their lunch arrives and they take a few bites. "Tastes good. Not fake at all," says Dubbledam.

Vleesch Lobby translates to "Meat Lobby," but "meat" is written in an old-Dutch way, which The Vegetarian Butcher intends to mean "not real meat." And "Lobby" refers to a place people can sit to promote a cause. In the evening, co-founder and director of the restaurant, Jaap Korteweg, dives into a vegetarian beef dish in a corner of his recently opened restaurant. "The waiter just told me that one of the guests had no idea it wasn't real meat until after his meal," he says, smiling with pride.

Korteweg, 56, wants his first and only restaurant to attract all kinds of people — from vegetarians and vegans to flexitarians and meat-lovers like himself. "My mission is to show meat-lovers that they won't miss out by skipping meat one or more days a week."

The Vegetarian Butcher company was founded 10 years ago, and its products are now available in 15 countries at 4,000 locations worldwide, ranging from supermarkets and specialty stores to several dozen other restaurants.

The company, which has an annual turnover of $17.53 million, sells a wide range of products, with new ones being developed all the time. One of these is a vegan smoked sausage, which took seven years to perfect and has been available in stores since September. The Dutch government invested $7 million in a machine that can create a vegetarian steak that resembles meat in taste and texture, along with seven international companies, including Unilever and Meyn (which builds machines to slaughter chickens).

Korteweg is a ninth-generation farmer who was inspired to become a vegetarian in 1997, after an outbreak of swine fever in the Netherlands led to the slaughter of millions of pigs. There was only one problem: He loved meat. In the end, it took him nearly seven years to stop eating meat altogether, though he still likes the taste of it. "I'd planned to keep a few pigs and cows on my farm, thinking I'd give them a good life and slaughter them for meat five years later. Well that changed pretty quickly when I realized that, like people, animals don't want to die after living a good life."

But Korteweg didn't like the meat substitutes available at the time, such as burgers made from processed vegetable slurry. The only solution was to develop a better alternative. The biggest challenge, however, was to recreate the texture of meat. "It requires the patience of a monk and the best experts to achieve the right result. Luckily, the Netherlands has plenty of knowledge."

He and his partners invested $4.7 million in the company, which steadily grew by 50 percent each year. "In the beginning, people often asked me why it had to resemble meat. They didn't understand our name either, assuming vegetarians wouldn't want anything to do with butchers. But we didn't do it for them, we did it for meat-lovers, and so far, it's worked out well." One of Kortegweg's partners, Niko Koffeman, who is also a member of Parliament for the Party for the Animals, estimates that at least 80 percent of the restaurant's clientele are meat-lovers.

Korteweg is convinced that meat consumption in the Western world will decrease dramatically in the near future. He also says he believes plant-based meat will become cheaper than real meat in 10 years. "I expect roughly 80 percent of all meat products to be plant-based in the next 25 years."

According to Jasper de Vries, a spokesperson for The Netherlands Nutrition Center, the consumption of meat substitutes has been on the rise in recent years. "The product range has grown, too. This is a great development because eating less meat is healthier, but unfortunately, most meat substitutes contain too much salt."

Koffeman says that the company tries to use as little salt as possible, and that many substitutes contain much less salt than the original meat.

The Vegetarian Butcher also sells vegetarian meatballs through Unox, a Unilever brand famous for its traditional smoked sausages. "Consumers wanted vegetarian products and were happy when we started selling them," says the company's director of communications, Fleur van Bruggen. "We noticed that many people go meat-free one or more days a week."

Korteweg is eager to collaborate with fast food chains too. According to Eunice Koekkoek, manager of corporate communications at McDonald's in the Netherlands, the fast-food restaurant is always open to discussing vegetarian options with companies and experts, including The Vegetarian Butcher. "We research popular trends and the needs of our customers, and noticed an increase in the number of flexitarians." Two vegetarian chicken substitutes from a different brand have been added to the McDonald's menu in the Netherlands.

Korteweg takes a bite of his vegetarian bacon as a group of customers enters the restaurant. If his concept proves successful, more restaurants will be opened in other cities or maybe countries.

At the beginning of this year, The Vegetarian Butcher opened a factory in the south of the Netherlands that can produce 30 million meat substitutes a year. Once the factory reaches full capacity by the end of 2018, the company can expand considerably.

"There's a lot of interest in our products in the United States," says Korteweg, who has been in contact with several American food companies, investors, and The Good Food Institute — a nonprofit that promotes plant-based meat, dairy and egg substitutes. "All of this brings us closer to our goal of reducing the consumption of animal products worldwide."

Thessa Lageman is a Dutch journalist, writer, and photographer who focuses on social topics.

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