A Seat at the Table: Vegan, Vegetarian Food Offer Breweries Gateway to New Customers

Systemic racism has been at the top of many minds and conversations since Summer 2020, following the death of George Floyd. Protests and social justice work that occurred since have kept the country’s attention on it. Within the craft brewing industry, conversations have started on how to increase inclusivity and diversity in their taprooms through focusing on how the taproom can be welcoming for new customers, such as offering expanded food selections as well as hosting events for traditionally underrepresented people in the beer industry.

Eugenia Brown, a beer and diversity advocate,  said she focuses on four ways a brewery can create a welcoming culture for customers: music, social media, hiring practices, and events. Brown emphasizes that representation matters and ways to show representation include celebrating black and brown culture, thoughts. “Inviting in a different crowd leads to a positive experience they can share with others,” she said.

Pilot Brewing & Ve-Go Food Truck, Charlotte, NC. Courtesy of Pilot Brewing Company.

When breweries say that they want to be more inclusive, it’s not one big step. In reality, creating change is a series of small steps to make their spaces more welcoming. Connecting with a community like vegans and vegetarians offers one way of changing perceptions and finding new drinkers who are increasingly female and Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

Vegetarian and Vegan Communities

National demographic data compiled by Nielsen Harris on Demand and reported by the Brewers Association shows that women (about 30%) and people of color (about 20%) comprise a small number of craft beer consumers. However, women make up 75% of vegans and Black Americans represent the fastest-growing demographic of vegans and vegetarians in the U.S. 

Rachael Hudson, co-owner and head brewer of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Pilot Brewing Co., said that vegan vendor Ve-Go Food Truck “brought in with them a [Black] customer base that wasn’t always exposed to the craft beer world, and we got a chance to show them our products and create new customers for ourselves.” Finding a way to bring the truck to her brewery (pre-COVID), Hudson said it was an important step to meet new drinkers and showcase Pilot for them.

Gallup reported in 2020 that nearly 25% of Americans reduced their meat consumption. The Pew Research Center reported in 2016, the most recent year of data, that 3% of U.S. residents follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, and another 6% eat mostly vegan or vegetarian. A vegan diet is free from animal-based foods, which includes meat, dairy, eggs, and honey, while a common type of vegetarian diet does not include meat, poultry, or seafood, but does include eggs and dairy.

While a small percentage overall, the numbers inside the choice of cutting animal products shows great diversity: 8% of Black adults report eating a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, according to the Washington Post. Black Americans are the fastest growing demographic to go vegan. A number of influential musicians, athletes, and actors, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z and Beyonce, and Venus Williams, promote a plant-based diet.

Brown said adding a menu or a vendor that speaks directly to a particular group is one way breweries can make their taprooms more inviting:. “For a lot of people, there is a feeling of being on the outside looking in, of not feeling like a space is ‘for us.’” 

Breweries serving vegan food can expose traditionally underrepresented groups, such as people of color and women, to their taproom culture in a way that creates a positive experience for those customers to share with others. 

Creating Inclusive Experiences

Ve-Go Food Truck serves exclusively vegan food, such as “Bang Bang Shrymp” and “Teriyaki Chik’n,”  and when possible,  show up as the food offering at local breweries.

Because vegan food is becoming more popular, Ve-Go owner Akil Courtney limits his availability to four or five breweries a week. Courtney said up to 80% of his business comes from repeat customers who will visit locations such as breweries, specifically because of Ve-Go. 

Ve-Go Krab Cake with remoulade sauce, cheezy grits, and sausage and sweet potato skillet sensation with Pilot Brewing Wind Shear Witbier. Photo courtesy of Pilot Brewing Company.

Pre-pandemic, one way Pilot created inclusive experiences was hosting beer dinners. “When we started hosting joint beer dinners, Ve-Go was [suddenly] introduced to a group of customers that [they] had not met before.” Hudson said. Pilot’s partnership with Ve-Go has been successful enough that Hudson has collaborated with other vegan food vendors, such as Darë Vegan Cheese.

Based on feedback he receives from customers, Courtney estimates as much as a third of customers who visit his food truck at breweries are trying vegan food for the first time. Meat eaters comprise 25-30% of his customers on any given day. 

“There is a real value in having events that are inviting to BIPOC, because they demonstrate that we are providing an atmosphere that is comfortable to everyone. We are not expecting for people to figure that on their own, we are taking the extra steps to provide an event that is inviting and exciting to a certain demographic, in a real effort to be inclusive,” Hudson says. 

When Pig Minds Brewing opened outside of Rockford, Illinois, in 2010, there were no vegan restaurants in the city located about 90 miles west of Chicago. When Pig Minds first opened, owner Brian Endl estimated that only about 5% of his customers were vegan or vegetarian, but today he estimates about 25% of his customers are. Pig Minds has become a destination for people from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.

Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, Equity and Inclusion Partner for the Brewers Association as well as founder of Crafted For All, LLC, champions a “barriers not bait” approach to increasing diversity within a brewery’s customer base through community partnerships. According to Jackson-Beckham, breweries should affirmatively shape the experiences for their new customers. Hudson points to simple steps breweries can take to educate customers when trying to attract new audiences, like posting vegan beer dinner menus on social media to take some of the mystery out of what to expect, a move which also normalizes vegan food.

While coming to a brewery to purchase vegan food doesn’t necessarily mean those customers will purchase beer, it can be the signal someone needs that their presence is welcome in the space and create a positive relationship with the brewery. 

As Brown said, representation matters and speaking directly to a particular community leads to authentic experiences they can share with others: “The best marketing for a brewery is someone posting a positive personal account of their experience.”

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Jen Blair is the founder and writer of Under the Jenfluence as well as an Advanced Cicerone and National BJCP judge. She is the co-host of False Bottomed Girls, a podcast about beer and brewing.

Additional underwriting for the Diversity in Beer Writing Grant comes from CraftBeer.com and Allagash Brewing Company.

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