'Supporting sustainability:' Hotel group goes vegetarian for 365 days

·3 min read

It was an exceptional move in an exceptional year.

Last year amid the coronavirus pandemic was a difficult stretch for hotels and restaurants, but in October, on World Vegetarian Day, which is celebrated annually on the first day of that month, Hong Kong-based Ovolo Group switched all of its hotels and restaurants across Australia and Hong Kong to go vegetarian for the next 365 days.

The only restaurants among its portfolio exempt are any that were already vegan and eschewing all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.

Casually dubbed the "Year of the Veg," the idea came straight from the top: from Ovolo Group founder and CEO Girish Jhunjhnuwala.

“It was a bold move,” says Jhunjhnuwala, speaking via phone from Hong Kong. “But the initial feedback was positive and, immediately, the reaction was very encouraging. So even though it was a bold move, we knew it was the right move.”

Ovolo Group’s food and beverage director, Vince Lombino, had some hesitation at first.

“We had the lockdowns to deal with and the COVID thing, so it was already a tough year. I wondered, did we want to alienate a large demographic? We had to be realistic about our expectations,” says the 30-year hospitality industry veteran, speaking from Australia.

“But we’d just opened one vegetarian restaurant and found that once we got pumping, we were outpacing the rest of the market. So we said let’s do it and do it really well,” adds the California native.

The pandemic actually influenced Jhunjhnuwala, a lifelong vegetarian, to make the decision: “In the early days of COVID, there was a lot of talk about it being transmitted from animals,” he says. “We felt strongly that we should stop this wrong treatment of animals and do the right thing.”

President Joe Biden has asked the intelligence community for a report on the likely origins of COVID-19 as questions grow about whether the virus was the result of an accident in a Chinese laboratory or spread through other means.

Ovolo Group is privately operated and includes 11 hotels and eight restaurants across Hong Kong and Australia. This year, a new hotel in Melbourne and one in Bali will be added to the portfolio.

Sustainability already plays a big part in Jhunjhnuwala’s business decisions, including avoiding single-use plastics at the properties, for instance. And ethical eating on both a humane and environmental level is a part of that.

A 2019 report from the United Nations Environment Programme states agriculture creates more greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels, and commercial raising of livestock is adding to the destruction of habitat and biodiversity. Overfishing, ocean warming and pollution, are leading to contaminated fish and smaller supplies, including some species, such as the once-abundant Atlantic cod, are in danger of extinction.

“You feel like you are doing something good for the community and supporting sustainability,” says Jhunjhnuwala of the vegetarian initiative.

However, the bottom line is tasty dishes: “We put ourselves in this place to be challenged,” says Lombino. “If you are going to do it, you’ve got to bring it and make it fantastic.”

Jhunjhnuwala thinks more people are open to plant-based eating. “We thought we’d get pushback, but there wasn’t any,” he recalls. “In Hong Kong we did a small wedding party, just 24 people, all socially distanced, and they deliberately chose a complete vegan reception. These were just local people, not health freaks.”

Year of the Veg falls short of United Nations recommendations of eliminating dairy, but Jhunjhnuwala thinks having vegetarian and vegan options is best for now. Once the Year of the Veg effort is over, a whopping 70% of Ovolo Group’s menus will remain vegetarian, he says.

“So far, so good,” Jhunjhnuwala says. “We’re extremely happy with how it’s gone and see no point in why we shouldn’t continue in some form.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hotel restaurants vegetarian push: Ovolo Group is in 'Year of the Veg'

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