Hold the meat: Ovolo Hotels going vegetarian-only for a year

A vegetarian watermelon poke dish at Alibi Bar & Kitchen, Ovolo Hotels’ vegan restaurant in Sydney.
A vegetarian watermelon poke dish at Alibi Bar & Kitchen, Ovolo Hotels’ vegan restaurant in Sydney.

Vegetarian and vegan menu options are standard at most hotels these days, but boutique hospitality chain Ovolo Hotels is going a step further, recently announcing plans to go 100% vegetarian across its full portfolio of restaurants for a year.

Ovolo, which operates four properties in Hong Kong and another seven in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane, Australia, launched its ambitious initiative on Oct. 1.

The brand, however, isn't a complete newcomer to vegetarian cuisine.

The group debuted a vegan restaurant, Alibi Bar & Kitchen, at its Ovolo Woolloomooloo hotel in Sydney roughly two and a half years ago, working with acclaimed plant-based chef Matthew Kenney to develop the concept. According to Ovolo founder and CEO Girish Jhunjhnuwala, the venue proved overwhelmingly popular, prompting the company to open vegetarian restaurant Veda at its Ovolo Central hotel in Hong Kong in February 2019.

"There was a bit of a hesitation to go all vegetarian from my management team in Hong Kong, but Veda has done extremely well, especially during the lunchtime trade," said Jhunjhnuwala, a lifelong vegetarian.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, Jhunjhnuwala saw the downturn as an opportunity to experiment further on the all-vegetarian front. Inspired by the success of Alibi and Veda, Ovolo began retraining chefs at its other restaurants in April, with plans to debut 100% vegetarian menus, each also featuring a selection of vegan offerings.

Ovolo's other dining outlets include the Monster Kitchen & Bar at the Ovolo Nishi in Canberra, Za Za Ta at the Ovolo the Valley in Brisbane and Mister Percy at the Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour in Sydney as well as Komune at the Ovolo Southside in Hong Kong. 

"There was so much work to be done with curating all the menus," said Jhunjhnuwala. "Because we didn't want to just do a spaghetti with tomato sauce and call it vegetarian, you know? There's a lot more to vegetarian cuisine these days than just getting a side of steamed vegetables or something."

At Za Za Ta, an Israeli-inspired dining concept, the menu features dishes like pumpkin dumplings, sesame falafel and a cauliflower shawarma with smoked labneh and pickled fennel. At Komune, diners can opt for specialties like coconut and chickpea curry or a pizza topped with truffled potato, Gorgonzola and pear.

"I know that we've got a lot of peers looking at what we're doing," Jhunjhnuwala said. "People are reaching out to me and saying it's a great move but also a gutsy one. I can't say I'm not a little bit fearful, but we'll keep gauging the response as we continue with it for the one-year period."

Meanwhile, Ovolo's pioneering push comes as the group enjoys a relatively robust post-pandemic rebound.

In Hong Kong, restaurants are reopened at 50% capacity indoors, with groups limited to four people. Tables are required to be about 5 feet apart. Dine-in venues, however, are permitted to remain open until midnight, which Jhunjhnuwala said has been "a big boost" for Hong Kong's restaurateurs.

"Hong Kong has gone through its ups and downs, but since things have been back open, business has come roaring back," he said.

In Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane, there are currently no capacity caps on indoor dining, though social distancing measures are observed. (The only Australian state that remains under stricter lockdown regulations is Victoria, home to the city of Melbourne.) 

"We've had some great staycation business in Australia," said Jhunjhnuwala. "And when people come to stay, they also come to eat. Our restaurants there are doing extremely well again." 


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