Resources to launch a Vegan Chef Challenge

Exciting news: Challenge going nationwide!

When I co-founded the Vegan Chef Challenge in Durham in 2010, I had no idea that nine years later the effort would be replicated nationwide. I’m happy to report that — due to the efforts of the Sacramento Vegan Challenge (run since 2011 by the tireless Bethany Davis after she learned about our challenge) – Vegan Outreach is now launching a nationwide effort, and has just hired someone to lead this effort.

Read more about the national Vegan Chef Challenge.


How the “Bull City” Vegan Chef Challenge began

One day, in 2010, after Eleni Vlachos sadly noted the limited vegan options at Durham, NC restaurants,  while sitting in Beyu Caffe, her omnivore and fellow musician friend Chef Shirle suggested: “Don’t just ask restaurants for vegan options.  Challenge chefs to create them.”

That simple idea stuck, and successive challenges co-led by Eleni held in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 resulted in multiple articles/mentions, roughly 3 out of 4 restaurants  permanently adopting vegan dishes and celebrating plant-based cuisine (as seen in the pride shown by restaurants such as Guglhupf and Dos Perros,  both of which have hosted vegan beer and wine events) and huge participation by omnivores (over half of surveyed participants were not even vegetarian!).

Eleni Vlachos and Chef Shirle, co-founders Photo by Derek Anderson, 2010


What is the impact of a Vegan Chef Challenge?

One 2016 participating chef from Guglhupf said,

“The overwelming response we got when we featured the BCVC entree last year propelled us to offer day-and-night options. and thanks to continued support and patronage, we’ve been able to keep it up all year!”

Restaurants were surprised to learn how much demand there was from both their regular omnivorous customers and the previously untapped vegan market for plant-based options. While thrilling current customers, most restaurants were surprised to win over a loyal (and growing) new customer base, and sell out the vegan dishes they offered. The resulting benefits were achieved each time we ran the Challenge:

  1. Permanent addition of vegan options to restaurant menus and often continued promotion of special vegan events and dinners
  2. Positive coverage of vegan foods and concept, and by extension the idea of going vegan (ie, vegans are “fun”) increasing the likelihood of
  3. Healthy relationship with media and continued dialogue with press coverage of vegan foods even post-Challenge (often contacted as “expert”)
  4. Non-participating restaurants eager to participate and get in on the fun by adding vegan options

It’s a win-win-win-win.

Another benefit is possible: future vegans. In 2016, we also asked people to pledge to try vegan for the month of the Challenge, and paired each person with a mentor, invited them all to our Meatless Monday dinners at the Durham Co-op, and gave each chances to win prizes. Such a short “ask” can aid in future reduction of meat, if not remaining plant-based.

The pride of winning is apparent for every challenge.Here, the chefs of 2016 accept their awards.

Positive feedback works

Both by way of media, and consumer dollars, restaurants respond to positive feedback by changing their menus. Case study: Guglhupf, a popular German restaurant and bakery that has been featured in the New York Times, among other places.

From participant Guglhupf’s 2016 blog:

“Given the positive feedback we received from you on this challenge, we are working to develop new vegan dishes for all of our menus throughout the day.”

They kept their word. For a restaurant that had zero vegan options prior to 2016, their 2018 menu — with dessert including coconut cream and entrees including cashew cheese — stuns.

Further, they continued to host events like this German and Vegan Wine Dinner, stating that:

“Did you know we won the Bull City Vegan Challenge, and it was eye-opening on a number of levels. There’s tremendous interest and demand for vegan options. It’s really fun and adventurous to create flavorful, bold vegan dishes that surprise even the most seasoned diner that they are 100% plant based.”


Helpful guides for organizers

What is the anatomy of a chef challenge?

  1. Organize volunteers and choose roles based on checklist; at this meeting also short-list local restaurants – choose surprising (ie, meat-heavy) but popular locations at a variety of economic points (cheap to fancy); brainstorm partners (our printing partner was the Durham Visitor’s Center, for instance)
  2. Create materials — posters, press releases, how-tos (see examples below), “rules” of the contest for restaurants
  3. Send press releases to select media contacts and obtain possible promise of coverage
  4. Leverage the above to recruit restaurants – more than ten is difficult to manage; start with a big name to be able to “name drop” to other restaurants. Important: go IN PERSON to the restaurants during non-busy hours to determine who to speak with — usually the head chef. The first three were free, but in the last we charged a minimal fee for free month-long promotions of $25 each – you can most likely, after building your reputation, ask for closer to $100. (Restaurants often pay around $1,000 for a similar restaurant-week event.)
  5. Request dishes, have photographer organize photo session of chef/dish – promote on your free challenge site
  6. In the meantime, slow release info to your media channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Build excitement.
  7. Recruit prizes from local places, announce these slowly as well.
  8. Announce partners.
  9. Create a voting survey online — be sure to capture diet to see who you are reaching. We categorize vegan positively as someone who “eats everything except animal products.”
  10. Set an after-party for the chefs where winners will be announced.
  11. Ensure each volunteer who has adopted a restaurant is following up to make certain the menu options are visible/promoted.
  12. Celebrate the volunteers and host a special dinner each week or at least at the end of the Challenge month.
  13. Tally your votes – create winning certificates – and celebrate at the after party. Be sure to share a winning recipe with the local news for more press coverage.

Video to share with chefs

Select press for the Challenge (2010 – 2016)

The challenge garners a lot of attention — but press does require reaching out. Read below to see how it has been covered in the past.

Volunteers: Don’t leave home without them!

A note from Eleni Vlachos

Though it’s important to have someone lead the Challenge, you really need people to help you with social media, press engagement, restaurant/chef engagement, prize gathering, photographs, art, and more. During my own involvement, the most successful volunteer effort was after founding a local branch of the national “Vegan Drinks,” whereby I took a sheet of paper asking for folks’ interest in getting involved (with a list of selections such as “restaurant outreach” and followed-up with each and every drunken sign-up I received). This resulted in the Dream Team of ’16:

Dragana, left, responsible for professional photos of Challenge dishes.
Back row: Laura Azar (artist), Leeanne S, Candace M, Kaitlin G., Natasha, Erin. Awkward front row: Eleni.


Artwork by the amazing Laura Azar


Current (known) challenge locations

Durham, NC

Home of the original Vegan Challenge! Eleni co-founded and led the series from 2010 – 2016. From 2018 onward, the Bull City Vegan Challenge has been led by Leeanne. Check out her new site.

Sacramento, California

Following the first Bull City Vegan Chef Challenge, Bethany Davis of Sacramento launched her own challenge and has held one every year since with great success. Visit the Sacramento Vegan Chef Challenge.

Interested in starting your own challenge? You can! Get in touch.

Sausage biscuit by popular bakery Rise; photo by Dragana