Jim Pizer: Using meat to draw new diners to plant-based options at Thali Cafe

Why Jim Pizer, founder of Thali Café, went from a vegetarian menu to one that incorporates a little meat

Thali started as a festival thing back in 2002, when I came back from six months in India. I had been eating thali plates and the whole Hindu approach just chimed with me — it was veggie by design rather than the western approach of removing meat to make the dish. I was vegetarian for years and the idea of large portions of meat with every meal struck me as wrong in lots of ways — it still does even though I’m no longer vegetarian.

Then we opened, effectively as one of the first pop-ups, in an old furniture shop. We were 100% vegetarian for the first eight or nine years. Lots of our customers were vegetarians but they wanted us to broaden the menu to include some meat — to satisfy their partners and friends. In fact we did a survey and that was the overwhelming response.

After 9 years of serving veg only, Thali Café tackled customer demand for meat by introducing the highest animal welfare standards. I am a firm believer that if you are going to be eating meat you really should appreciate it. And we make that point on the menu.

I made a commitment from the start that the meat we sourced and served would be a minimum of free range and all dairy would be organic. For me it has to be about quality, not quantity. That is one the absolute cornerstones of our ethics policy. We do have to compromise on some of our ingredients like the authentic Asian vegetables, but we won’t cut corners on this.

Cost can be a barrier for some when it comes to higher welfare meat; to counter this, the chicken meat in our thali is thigh — a more cost-effective cut.

But Vegetable are still the heroes

We now have a very simple menu across all six of our restaurants, including our new one in Oxford. There are five thalis: two with meat, one vegetarian, one vegan and one fish. I believe the dishes sell themselves and I absolutely steer clearly of labelling them as vegetarian or vegan because I am convinced that puts meat eaters off choosing them.

We have an allergen and dietary chart people can read, so they can avoid those things they really can’t eat, but in my view our veggie dishes sell themselves in their own right without a label.

When we switched to this new streamlined menu last year we also re-jigged the starters. There are four, one of which has meat. I included that because I didn’t want meat eaters to look at them and write off the whole section because it was entirely veggie. That’s why we include Chicken and Coriander Samosas.

The chicken thali is our best seller but the vegetarian one is the second top seller. We’ve noticed more and more interested in our vegan thali and we put more and more focus on that dish.

Another really effective way of encouraging our customers to try the vegetable option is with promotions like Meat Free Mondays. We know that lots of meat eaters will try our offer of £10 for a meat free starter, main and dessert.

We think the Pumpkin and Coconut Olan — sweet roasted pumpkin in a coconut, black-eyed bean and curry leaf sauce — and Punjabi Paneer, in a creamy spinach and fenugreek sauce, can stand proud alongside the Keralan Nandan Chicken, Lucknowi Lamb, and Goan Fish Thalis.

The most important thing to me and I think the customers is that the food is delicious, regardless of whether it has meat or not.

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Future Plates

A collaboration with chefs to design the plant-based menus of the future and inspire us to change the way we eat.