For 10 years, Vanessa Helmick worked as a waitress and listened patiently whenever diners reeled off long lists of needed alterations to menu items. She doesn’t want to be that customer.

“I don’t like being the person who modifies the dish so much that it annoys the chef,” said Helmick, who lives in Portland.

But here’s the rub: She’s allergic to dairy, and even when she carefully questions wait staff about any milk lurking in a dish, too often she ends up eating some forgotten drops, maybe hidden in the sauce or slipped into the salad dressing, and paying the price afterwards.

As a result Helmick, who is an omnivore, told me she is “more comfortable going to a vegan restaurant.” In Maine, which has only a handful of all-vegan restaurants, she frequents veg-friendly eateries and orders vegan dishes, which never contain dairy products.

Turns out Helmick isn’t the only non-vegan ordering vegan restaurant dishes.

According to the most recent Harris Poll commissioned in 2016 by the Vegetarian Resource Group, 37 percent of Americans regularly order vegan and vegetarian meals when dining out. This is striking since the same poll found only 3.3 percent of Americans are full-time vegetarians and vegans.

The Northeast – and presumably Maine although the survey wasn’t broken down by state – is home to the country’s highest concentration of full-time vegetarians, clocking in at 5.4 percent of the population, according to the survey. A whopping 42 percent of people in the Northeast report regularly ordering vegan and vegetarian meals at restaurants.

For years, chefs and restaurant owners across Maine have told me how their vegan dishes are being snapped up by meat-eating customers. So I decided to investigate further. What I discovered is a sizable group of people who eat meat at home but order vegan meals when they dine out.

Lelia Zayed is a member of this tribe who, like Helmick, has a dairy allergy. She also doesn’t like asking for menu modifications and regularly orders vegan dishes.

“We have so many great kitchens in this town,” said Zayed, who lives in Portland, “and I like to experience a dish exactly as the chef intended. With a dairy allergy, that can be tough to do. When I order vegan options – because they were designed to be dairy-free – I experience the complete dish just as it was meant to be enjoyed.”

Judy Paolini, who lives on Long Island in Casco Bay, said she doesn’t mind asking for simple modifications – such as leaving off the sauce, cheese or mayonnaise – but the results are often “really dry” and she regrets missing the “full experience” of the menu item. She prefers ordering vegan. Paolini, who is lactose intolerant, has avoided dairy for 42 years, but she said it has only been in the last 10 years that ordering vegan has become a regular option for people like her. “If it says ‘vegan’ next to it, I’ll order it,” she said.

Suzanne Madore of Saco doesn’t have a dairy allergy but she too regularly orders vegan dishes in local restaurants.

“I’ll usually order vegan because other options on the menu feel too heavy or too much,” Madore said. “Often, the vegan option just sounds delicious, and it often is. I’m also not a meat eater that demands meat and dairy at every meal.”

Jenna Smith of Portland, who describes herself as “a meat-loving omnivore,” orders vegan when dining out because her family of four is committed to eating meat only from local, organic farms and farmers they know.

“Occasionally we find ourselves at a farm-to-table restaurant that has local meat on the menu,” Smith said. “I certainly consider it. But I’m so comfortable ordering vegan meals when out that I just stick with it.”

The Vegan Meltaway, a vegan grilled cheese filled with tomatoes and caramelized onions at Silly’s in Portland. Staff photo by Derek Davis

One veg-friendly restaurant whose owners have thought a lot about the trend is El El Frijoles, a burrito spot in Sargentville. Chef Michele Levesque said in the past four years the number of customers ordering vegan and vegetarian dishes has doubled. “I don’t think they’re hardcore vegetarians at home,” Levesque said, “but when they eat out, they’re concerned about meat and the quality of meat.”

Michael Rossney, who owns El El Frijoles with Levesque, said the restaurant attracts the sort of customer who understands the realities of modern food production.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Where does your meat come from?’ ” Rossney said. He explains that their pork comes from a cooperative farm in Quebec and the chicken is antibiotic-free but “comes from away and is mass-produced.”

At this point, Rossney said, about half of those who ask “are happy to have the Quebec pork” and the other half “go ahead and order one of the vegetarian options.”

Work is gearing up for the end of mud season and the return of full food service later this month at the four lodges that make up the Maine Huts & Trails network in western Maine. Operations manager Sarah Pine anticipates her staff will once again accommodate hikers who eat meat at home but opt for vegan meals while on the trail. Pine said the trend has become more visible in the last three years, also attributing it to dairy allergies and concerns about the quality of meat, as well as a desire to reduce the quantity of meat eaten.

“They think the vegan option is a safer option instead of mystery meat,” Pine said. “They are also concerned about the environmental impact of meat.”

Pine said some hikers request vegan meals ahead of time and then change to the meat-based dish after they arrive and learn that Maine Huts & Trails sources its food locally.

One of Portland’s best-known veg-friendly restaurants is Silly’s at the base of Munjoy Hill, where owner Colleen Kelley also has seen rising numbers of non-vegans ordering vegan. Just a few years ago, non-vegans were highly skeptical, she said, but the public has become more open to trying vegan food. Also, meat-eaters at Silly’s often order vegan when dining with a vegan, Kelley said, “so sharing can go on.” But dairy allergies are the biggest driver, she said: “It takes the guessing out of it for lactose-intolerant people.”

Helmick, the former waitress who is allergic to dairy, travels often for work. She finds plentiful vegan options on the West Coast and few in the South. Overall, she said, the picture is bright.

“There are so many more options now,” Helmick said. “Because in general people are opening up to the idea of vegan.”

Correction: This story was updated at 6:29 a.m. on June 7 to correct an inaccurate headline.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila