Before I went to grad school and got an office job I waited tables for about eight years. Working in restaurants has been the most fun job I’ve had so far: the fast pace, team work, and camaraderie between staff can be addicting! I’ve met some amazing folks as a waitress, including my husband, and acquired countless stories about crazy customers. Although restaurant work can be physically and emotionally challenging the toughest part for me came about when I switched to a vegan diet.

The Big Shift

The restaurant where I worked when I went vegan was a fairly fancy, farm to table spot. The menu changed almost everyday and featured lots of local meat, cheese, and produce. Before I decided to give veganism a try I felt proud of the dishes we served and happy to chat with customers about the food and how wonderful it was. But that feeling of pride started to fade as I started learning more about the ethical arguments against eating meat and dairy, as well as the environmental and health effects of consuming animal products.

I remember about three months into being vegan I was waiting on a very nice couple one busy Saturday night. They were ordering the fried chicken and asked me if the chickens we served had been happy. I didn’t know what to say. Up until this point I had tried to leave my thoughts about animal welfare at the door when I came to work, but this question was so direct I was at a loss. I’m not proud to say that I answered with a “Yes, the chickens we use are all free range and antibiotic free.” They seemed pleased with that response, but I was not.

Doing my job well meant I would have to ignore my ethical beliefs.

For the rest of the night and form many days afterwards I really wrestled with what I had said. The brief interaction I had with this table forced me to recognize that doing my job well-being enthusiastic about the restaurant’s offerings- meant I would have to ignore my ethical beliefs. I felt so guilty for not speaking up for those chickens and every other animal I was serving to people as dinner. What difference did it make if these animals had been “happy” up until their death? How could I call myself an ethical vegan and still serve food that did not align with my beliefs?

Representing veganism in my server book

I want to stop briefly here and say that when this happened I did a lot of internet searching and reddit thread reading, looking for other vegan servers in my same position. I didn’t find many who were talking about this issue and when I did find posts on this topic the comments section was often pretty brutal. Many people felt strongly that ethical vegans working in non-vegan restaurants were doing something morally wrong. I can absolutely understand this perspective, but also knew that for me, and many other servers out there, waiting tables was the best financial option for me at the time.

So. I needed to find a way to not feel like an ethical hypocrite at work and through trial and error came up with the following methods:

  • Recommend vegan options as often as possible

  • Chose my words carefully

  • Be a shining example

  • Donate to organizations that help farm animals

Recommend Vegan Options As Often As Possible

At this particular restaurant there were often one or two secretly vegan items on the menu. For example, an avocado toast appetizer or simple mixed lettuces salad. If people asked me for recommendations I always highlighted these options. I never mentioned they happened to be vegan because for some people that’s a major turn-off, but I was always thrilled when they ordered (and loved) them.

Avocado Toast, beloved by vegans and carnivores alike.

Choose My Words Carefully

When tables asked for recommendations instead of saying, “The lamb ragu is excellent,” I would say, ” Guests have been enjoying the lamb ragu tonight,” or “The lamb ragu has been very popular this weekend.” This might sound like a small thing, but it gave me so much peace.

I felt like when I said ” The (blank) dish is great,” I was giving my personal support to it. The subtle shift in language from that to ” Guests love (blank),” took the focus off of me and my preferences and put it onto the other customers. When I did this I didn’t feel like I was pushing a particular dish and giving my approval of it. It also seemed like customers didn’t notice this little linguistic trick. Ultimately they just want to know what’s good, and one way to help them figure that out is to say what’s been popular. If they pushed further and wanted to know specifically what I liked, I pointed to the vegan options or explained that I was vegan and showed them how I would modify a dish to suit my diet.

Be A Shining Example

I’d worked at this particular restaurant for almost three years when I went vegan, and had noticeably struggled with my weight during this time. I was close with a lot of my coworkers and we often talked about the diets we were trying out and the challenge of staying healthy while working in a place that constantly fed us delicious food.  When I went vegan I lost thirty pounds pretty quickly. My skin started glowing. I felt happier. All these changes were obvious to my friends at work and it made them curious.

Please don’t underestimate the power of being a good example. I could’ve yammered on all day about how happy I was as a vegan, and the ethical, environmental, and health benefits-but nothing changes someone’s mind like a physical transformation. Focus on being the happiest and healthiest version of yourself and know that doing so is one of the best things you can contribute to the vegan movement.

Donate

Take a bit of that money you’re earning and donate it to an organization that’s helping animals. I donate monthly to Mercy for Animals, and there are many other non-profits and sanctuaries that could use your help.

Lastly…

Is working in a restaurant that serves animal products ideal as a vegan? Nope. Are you gonna feel uncomfortable and conflicted even if you do all these things I recommend? Yup. Whether working in restaurants is your lifetime career or just for a few years, please know that the customers and coworkers around you are paying attention. The more you can represent veganism in a positive way, the likelier it will be that one day, maybe years and years from now, they’ll think of how happy you seemed, and decide to give this diet a try.