Do you miss those bygone times when vegans were made fun of for making compassionate choices? Well, now you can relive that cringey era at pop-up Karen’s Diner.
Originally started in Sydney, Australia, Karen’s Diner revolves around the concept of what would happen if a classic American diner were operated by a “Karen”—or a rude and entitled, typically white, woman. “The food is great, the service is ungrateful but your experience will be unforgettable,” the pop-up describes itself.
Since its 2021 debut, the pop-up has expanded to multiple cities globally, including 20 stops this year in the United States. And, given the global popularity of plant-based eating, the menu is accommodating with a vegan burger that comes with a smashed patty, vegan cheese, lettuce, tomato, beets, avocado, and vegan aioli, along with fries and a soda.
So what happens when you order said vegan option? According to KCRW, a “Karen” server will berate you, screaming, “Oh, we have a vegan.” They then direct the rest of the establishment to moo at the person ordering vegan food.
And while this Aussie pop-up is meant to be fun, the concept of the great American diner got a different kind of makeover recently, courtesy of Swedish brand Oatly.
Oatly’s diner takeover
Most people, Karens included, know what to expect at a traditional American diner: greasy burgers, fully loaded breakfasts, over-the-top milkshakes, and the like. However, vegan food is often relegated to sides, if it is served at all. And diner patrons don’t like their food being messed with.
That’s exactly why Oatly worked with Lee’s Drive-In, a charming Southern diner in Hammond, LA, for its newest installment of YouTube series “Will It Swap?”
“Louisiana has an incredibly rich food culture, steeped in tradition,” Jeremy Elias, Head of Global Content Studio, Oatly, tells VegNews. “People are quite proud and protective of that, especially the regulars at Lee’s Drive-in.”
“It created the perfect setting for Oatly to explore swapping out dairy for our products and getting honest reactions,” Elias says. “We were also taken by Lee’s classically charming 1950s decor.”
Lee’s has been serving comfort food in a 1950’s style setting for more than 50 years. There, Oatly provided its vegan dairy products as swaps for animal products in four dishes: French Toast, Jambalaya Pasta, Crawfish Fettuccine, and Milkshakes.
Lee’s served these dishes for two days to its customers, who include Caramel Curves MC—an all-women’s motorcycle club. “How do they get liquid from these oats?” one club member asked.
Overall, customer reactions were generally positive, with some exclaiming that the new dairy-free recipes were actually creamier than usual.
“I don’t know what Oatly is or who that is but this is good right here,” a customer said.
Could Oatly sway tough critics like the Mande Milshakers and their accompanying “milkman”—a women’s performance group inspired by the traditionally dairy-based diner staple? None of them could tell the difference.
One skeptical customer, who said, “I want my hamburger to be beef,” was nervous that Oatly would taste like hummus. “It’s not bad at all,” she responded after trying a pasta dish.
“You really cannot taste the difference between this and milk,” she eventually admitted and suggested that Oatly convince hesitant consumers to try its vegan products by telling them that it’s not hummus.
What did Oatly learn from the experience at Lee’s?
“Other than that we should never go into the hummus business,” Elias says. “Whether they were just exhibiting Southern hospitality or blatantly lying, we were struck by how receptive Lee’s patrons were to our never-before-tested recipes featuring Oatly products, with nearly all the diners enjoying their swapped meal.”
Slutty Vegan: the anti-Karen?
While Oatly’s stunt showed that the classic American diner is ripe for a dairy-free takeover, another American food concept, fast food, is already deep in the throes of a plant-based revolution, in no small part thanks to Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan.
And while Karen’s Diner is making vegans the butt of its jokes, over at Slutty Vegan, a completely different scene unfolds when customers order food.
Instead of spouting old tropes, the vegan chain celebrates the idea of newcomers getting “slutiffied”—or ordering at Slutty Vegan for the first time—with a “We’ve got a virgin” announcement over the speakerphone, dancing, and roaring applause.
As much as its vegan burgers, shakes, and sides are loved by many, inclusivity and celebration are part of the secret sauce of the Atlanta-based chain’s astounding success. And the celebration is spreading across the country, funded by a $25 million investment Slutty Vegan secured last year.
Up next? Dallas is about to be sluttified with the vegan chain’s first Texas location, slated to open this Saturday. “Dallas has been asking, and we’re so excited to deliver,” Slutty Vegan founder and CEO Pinky Cole said in a statement. “We’re bringing the heat just in time for summer.”
At 11 locations and growing, the Slutty Vegan menu is filled with options that are sure to make any Karen gasp, including The One Night Stand, The Hollywood Hooker, and The Fussy Hussy.
For those who prefer to be moo-ed when ordering vegan, the Karen’s Diner pop-up is also coming to Dallas in September.