Toronto is having its vegan moment
Plant-based foods are what's up right now on Toronto's dining scene. Thank the internet. Thank Netflix. Thank people like me who pout whenever a server says the soup has cream.
We're not hippies, we're healthy – and our ranks are growing as fast as demand can keep up, both in the 6ix and around the world.
Our city has seen a sharp rise in vegan options over the past few years. Those who were once relegated to a few select restaurants downtown (what up, Fresh and Urban Herbivore?) are emerging from their own kitchens to find everything from vegetarian butcher shops to meat-free McDonald's dupes.
And it's only getting better.
Bloomberg reported earlier this year that global sales of plant-based meat substitutes have gained 8 per cent annually since 2010, reaching about $2 billion in June. That's twice the growth rate of processed meat, to put things in perspective.
We're seeing the effects of this in an explosion of vegan options at the grocery store, in food courts and, more recently, in a string of new restaurants that are 100 per cent vegan.
"It's a very strong position we are taking in food service at the moment," says Chase Hospitality Group president Steven Salm, whose company just replaced its fast seafood restaurant Little Fin with the vegan burger joint Planta Burger.
Chase also owns the posh Planta in Yorkville and will soon be opening a gourmet greens spot called Palm Lane.
"I think people are learning more thanks to the power of social media," he told me by phone. "They're reading things and becoming knowledgeable about diet and lifestyle. This has translated into what they put on their plates."
But, Salm says, it's not so much a move towards veganism as it is about "building a great restaurant that just happens to to serve animal-free products."
"Seventy to 80% of our customers aren't vegan," he says. "They just want to add more plant based food into their diet."
"Veganism is certainly shedding its tofu and granola stereotypes," she told me, noting that the aforementioned festival has more than doubled in the three years since it launched.
"We get a great variety of guests at the festival. We have vegans who have stuck with us since year one, but we also have many non-vegans who come with friends, family, or on their own to see what all the hype is about."
In response to the demand, Galloway says the company has plans to open three more vegan restaurants in Parkdale (or "vegandale," as she lovingly refers to the West-end hood.)
"It's incredible to see more and more people interested in seeing what veganism has to offer," she says. "Toronto is a foodie city, so we make sure to have incredible eats on deck."
What separates this most-recent wave of hip vegan spots in the city from the meat-free joints we already love appears to be a focus on food that tastes "like the real thing."
The grain bowls at Kupfert & Kim are great, but my meat-eating friends are a lot more likely to try something like Hogtown Vegan's plant-based Reuben than... anything that looks like it's good for you.
Eric Chao is slated to open his first restaurant, Parka Food Co., on Queen Street this fall.
"Our focus is on comfort food classics that have been reinvented to
be wholesome yet indulgent and 100% plant-based," he told me, pointing to dishes like eggplant burgers, tomato basil soup and truffle mushroom mac ('n cheese'.)
Much like Salm, Chao says that the "vegan" part of his restaurant isn't as important as the "delicious" part of his restaurant.
"People seem to genuinely enjoy our food," he says. "And the fact that it's plant-based comes as secondary."
While he thinks that many neighbourhoods around the city are still lacking in plant-based restaurant options, Chao believes that things are changing.
"If you look at many major cities in the U.S. and Europe, they're experiencing a similar trend," he says. "One could potentially see that as an indication of where we are heading in Toronto."
Salm has an even stronger prediction.
"I’m really excited for the next chapter," he told me. "I think the industry is just getting started."
Hector Vasquez at Planta Burger
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