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Vegetarian Restaurants Favor ‘Fast,’ Healthy Competition

Times Staff Writer

Owners of San Diego County vegetarian restaurants are watching with keen interest the recent additions of “healthier” foods at fast-food restaurants such as Wendy’s and Jack in the Box.

They’re watching, but they’re not worried.

“I applaud their doing it,” said Frank Russo, owner of Kung Food Vegetarian Restaurant on 5th Avenue in uptown San Diego.

The fast-food restaurants are offering more salads, whole grain buns and other healthy foods.

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“More and more restaurants are conscious of some people’s desire to watch what’s in their diet,” said Russo, who has been in the restaurant business since 1966.

But Russo added, “If you’re a vegetarian, you would not like the idea of having your food cooked on a grill that people are cooking steaks on.

“I think if a person really likes this kind of food, then they aren’t going to be satisfied going to a Bob’s Big Boy.”

Kung Food had $750,000 in sales last year, Russo said, up 10% from 1983.

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About 40% to 45% of the sales came from the deli adjacent to the restaurant. The deli offers such items as natural soaps and toothpastes, fruit drinks, whole grain breads and cassette recordings of spiritual lectures.

“I feel pretty optimistic about the business as a whole,” Russo said. “I expect my business to continue to grow.”

David Jackson, owner of the East West Macrobiotic Center in North Park, said, “I think it’s great” that fast-food restaurants are adding healthier dishes to their menus. And, like Russo, Jackson doesn’t think that the new entrees will put him out of business.

Fast-food restaurants “may not have the atmosphere and the quality that a (vegetarian) restaurant does,” he said. “But it’s good that they are doing it.”

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The center generated $500,000 in sales last year, up 20% from 1983. Its restaurant, Grain Country, doubles as a store that sells grains, beans and organic vegetables and fruit.

Jackson, a seven-year veteran of the natural foods business, said he is creating a line of meat substitutes to distribute to other stores and restaurants. One of them, called “wheat meat,” should be available by December, he said.

Walt Esmailian, owner of Cornucopia in Hillcrest, said fast-food restaurants “will not take any business from me. Those places have been known as hamburger and hot dog places for years. I’ll just keep my quality good, (serve) big portions and (keep) everything fresh; there’s no competition for that. The people who come here know what they are looking for.”

Indeed, Cornucopia’s profits were up about 25% last year, and Esmailian plans to open another restaurant soon in either La Jolla or North County.

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Garry Flam, owner of L’chaim Vegetarian Cafe in El Cajon, said that vegetarians, while traveling, often stop at a fast-food eatery only for convenience.

But Flam, a vegetarian for 13 years, said, “I don’t think they would make that a habit.”

His restaurant, which generated $100,000 in sales last year, up about 15% from 1983, will not be hurt by the increase in health fare at fast-food outlets, Flam said.


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