Foodies say Canada is in the midst of a renaissance in plant-based dining as vegan restaurants sprout up across the country and traditional establishments update their menus to make them more animal-friendly.
But restaurateurs say the proliferation of options is being driven not by observant vegans, but by dabbling omnivores looking for appealing meat-free fare.
“I think we’re living in kind of a boom of veganism,” said Eva Lampert, director of vegan operations at the 5700 Inc., an events and hospitality company. “People are more curious about it, and thankfully, that has meant there’s more demand for it.”
Lampert is part of the team pushing to rebrand a stretch of the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end as “Vegandale,” which she describes as a “little mecca” of vegan businesses that will help redefine plant-based dining as far more than just “rabbit food.”
Vegans go beyond vegetarians in banning meat from their plates, also abstaining from animal products including eggs, dairy and honey.
The 5700 Inc. co-owns Doomie’s Toronto and Mythology Diner, side-by-side restaurants that serve veganized comfort classics made by two different chefs. Across the street is the company’s vegan retail boutique The Imperative.
Mythology’s menu includes faux Reuben sandwiches, eggs Benedict, and polenta poutine, while Doomie’s serves imitation chicken sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese balls. Soy, wheat and vegetables are used as substitutes for meat and dairy.
By the end of the year, Lampert said “Vegandale” plans to expand to six storefronts from three, with restaurants offering a range of cuisines and price points including diner fare, desserts and meat-free fast food.
“With our business model, we’re looking to get the non-vegans in first and foremost,” she said. “We’re really looking to bring in the skeptics and the people who are unsure of vegan food so they can kind of have that ‘aha’ moment and realize a lot of the things they already are enjoying are vegan.”
At the soon-to-be-opened Rosalinda in Toronto’s financial district, co-owners Max Rimaldi and Jamie Cook set out to create a Mexican vegan restaurant that could compete with any steakhouse in the city’s cutthroat dining scene.
“We take care of all the elements that are required for a good restaurant, period,” Rimaldi said. “It just happens to be vegan.”
More than a decade in the making, Rosalinda was borne out of what Rimaldi and Cook, who eat a largely plant-based diet, had perceived to be a sparse and uninspired vegan dining scene.
The partners behind the Pizzeria Libretto chain teamed up with restaurateur Grant van Gameren, whose portfolio of meat-heavy establishments earned him a reputation as Toronto’s “charcuterie king,” said Rimaldi.
While perhaps an unlikely partner, Rimaldi said van Gameren’s palate-pushing culinary approach was key to designing an eclectic menu that appeals to the meat-eating masses, not just “granola-eating people.”
“The people who come into the restaurant and say, ‘I typically eat at … a meat-based restaurant, and I love coming here because I don’t miss the meat,’ that’s going to be the biggest compliment we can hear.”
In Ottawa, there are more than 232 vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes, up from 186 last year, according to Ethical Tree, an online directory that tracks socially-conscious businesses in a few Ontario cities.
Co-founder Frank Ferris, who consults with businesses about targeting ethically minded consumers, said as plant-based diets become more popular, particularly among young people, non-vegan restaurants are adding animal-friendly options in a bid to regain market share.
He pointed to a recent study conducted by a Dalhousie University professor that showed more than seven per cent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarians, and 2.3 per cent identify as vegan. The survey also suggested people younger than 35 were three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than people 49 or older.
Ferris said diners with diet restrictions can have disproportionate sway in group decisions about eating out, so for every vegan customer a restaurant can accommodate, the returns are often multiplied by all their omnivorous friends.
“These are deeply held beliefs,” said Ferris. “If a customer goes into your store or restaurant because they’re vegan … and you cater to that ethical preference, then they’re likely to stay loyal.”
Andrew Infantino, marketing director of Montreal-based Copper Branch, said his fast-casual franchise sees ethical concerns about the environment and animal welfare as “secondary benefits” of its vegan menu, instead emphasizing how plant-based “power foods” can contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
With 17 locations in Ontario and Quebec, Copper Branch is on track to add eight more locations by the end of the year, Infantino said, and next year expects to double the size of its empire to 50 restaurants in other provinces.
Infantino said plant-based diets have emerged as “the new cool,” attracting endorsements from celebrities and athletes including Canadian figure skater Meagan Duhamel, who partnered with Copper Branch to talk about how her vegan diet fuelled her training for this year’s Olympics.
“There are so many benefits that I don’t see how a movement like this can just be a fad,” he said. “I hope it’s the dining of the future.”