Plant-based restaurants have been on the rise for a few years now. Acclaimed New York City fine-dining restaurant Eleven Madison Park famously reopened after the pandemic with a vegan tasting menu and earned three MICHELIN stars in 2022.
But an international hotel group going vegetarian at all of its restaurants? That was unheard of until February 2022, when Ovolo Hotels became the first hotel brand in the world to commit to fully vegetarian menus at its six restaurants in Australia and two in Hong Kong (Ovolo also operates a subsidiary group called Ovolo Collective that isn’t part of this commitment).
In 2023, the group added famed chef Shannon Martinez to their team to further strengthen their plant-based offerings. “We are incredibly excited at being at the forefront of plant-based offerings in the hotel space,” says Stephen Howard, the group director of marketing at Ovolo. “With Shannon Martinez on board… guests are endlessly surprised and delighted at the vegetarian and vegan offerings.”
Read on to learn about Ovolo’s journey to sustainable hospitality.
Early experiments with going green
Girish Jhunjhnuwala started Ovolo Group as a real estate business in 2002 before expanding to hotels in 2010 with the debut of Ovolo Central in his hometown, Hong Kong. In the decade since, the group has added three hotels in Hong Kong, one in Indonesia, and eight in Australia.
It wasn’t until 2020, though, that Ovolo significantly ramped up its sustainability goals. The effort, dubbed “Year of the Veg,” coincided with the first year of the pandemic, which made it all the more vital for Ovolo to push through.
“During this time there was a lot of negativity and angst, and we simply wanted to do something good and better for the world,” says Alexander Barnett, the marketing communications director for Ovolo Australia.
Ovolo pledged to go vegetarian for a full year at all of its eight hotel restaurants. (Studies have found that meat accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from food production). Ovolo already had a little taste of this change with the opening of its eclectic Indian restaurant, Veda, in 2019—Hong Kong’s first fully vegetarian hotel restaurant at the time.
Buoyed by the positive local response to the restaurant, hotel group chef Ian Curley was eager to go big.
Highlighting vegetarianism’s cross-cultural pull
Ovolo’s restaurants showcase a broad range of cuisines. Apart from the experimental Indian food at Veda, Brisbane’s ZA ZA TA serves Tel Aviv-inspired dishes, Melbourne’s Lona Misa has Latin American flair, and Canberra’s Monster Kitchen & Bar shows off the bounty of local produce.
Dishes such as a halloumi doughnut with chilli jam, plant-based birria, and butternut squash katsu curry have made these restaurants local favorites. Lona Misa nabbed one hat on the Australian Good Food Guide’s 2023 awards. Alibi Bar & Dining, Ovolo’s Sydney restaurant that’s also Australia’s first vegan hotel restaurant, was named best hotel bar in 2022 by the Australian Hotels Association Awards. And ZA ZA TA was among Queensland’s best vegetarian restaurants in 2022.
This warm embrace further cemented Ovolo’s desire to make a permanent change. “The road wasn’t easy, but we knew our why, and we were determined to make it a success,” Barnett says.
Going green for good
Following the decision to be fully vegetarian at all of its hotel restaurants in February 2022, Ovolo extended that effort to other aspects of its business in October that year.
The Do Good, Feel Good initiative addresses a wide range of environmental concerns within the hospitality industry. Working with the nonprofit Eden Reforestation Projects, Ovolo has committed to planting one tree for every direct booking. The hotel group will eliminate single-use plastics this year, plans to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, and aims to use sustainable materials for new construction moving forward.
Now, Ovolo wants to take this effort beyond its properties. The company launched the Plant’d Playbook, a guide that Ovolo hopes other restaurants and hotel groups will embrace similar to how its guests were enthusiastically on board with its switch to vegetarian food.
“[We wanted] to share our learnings and to assist other businesses on their journey to going plant-based,” Barnett says.
Tanay Warerkar is a content marketing manager overseeing special editorial projects for the OpenTable Blog. He has a decade of experience as a journalist most recently serving as the deputy food & wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a reporter and editor at Eater NY prior to that. In his spare time, Tanay can be found plotting his next food-focused travel itinerary or cooking from his ever-expanding cookbook collection.