Customers lining up to get takeout for lunch at The Butcher's Son, a meat-and-dairy-free deli in downtown Berkeley. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Eating a vegan diet used to be the opposite of cool, and vegans were often the butt of jokes. The classic line from the November 2000 episode of "The Simpsons" — “I’m a Level Five Vegan. I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow" — pretty much captures widely held beliefs about the misplaced militancy of the meat-and-dairy-eschewing crowd.
But over the past few years, veganism has gone mainstream. Celebrities like Beyoncé and former President Bill Clinton have talked publicly about the benefits of eating a meat- and dairy-free diet.
“I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit," Clinton said in an interview on CNN. "And it changed my whole metabolism.”
“These times are about surviving," said Alejandro Morgan, head of culinary of the Bay Area restaurant group Back of the House, which owns the plant-based eatery Wildseed in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighborhood. "These times are about being able to keep as many people you can employed, and pay the bills.”
KQED listener Mishi Ramos' question, “What is the vegan food scene in the Bay Area like today?” came across the Bay Curious desk not long before the pandemic hit. Since then, the story of how vegan food businesses are faring today has become one that's very much aligned with the fate of most small, local restaurants during COVID-19 times. So, while we tackled the question by focusing on Bay Area vegan businesses, the answer applies more broadly.
The Growth of Vegan Culture
Though vegans only make up about 5-6% of the U.S. population, their numbers are growing, and more and more omnivores are starting to take an interest in vegan foods.
One reason for the trend is the perception that eating a plant-based diet is healthy. People claim cutting out meat and dairy cleared their skin, upped their energy levels and helped them lose weight.
Then there’s growing public awareness around the meat industry’s treatment of animals and its environmental footprint. A recent analysis from the journal Science shows 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from meat and dairy production.
Also, recent news headlines about the heavy impact of COVID-19 on the meat production industry have made more people question how much meat they should have in their diet — even though meat scandals in the past haven’t had long-term sticking power, and the overwhelming majority of Americans will continue to eat meat.
It also helps the plant-based cause that vegan foods have become ubiquitous at grocery stores, restaurants and cafes, especially in the Bay Area, and that the region is well-known for its year-round abundance of produce.
Finally, non-vegans in particular are gravitating towards the new, high-tech wave of meatless proteins, from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
A recent study from the food industry publication Food Dive shows the number one factor driving non-vegans to eat products like meatless burgers is that they’re starting to taste more like meat. (Traditional veggie patties, which many vegans still prefer, taste more like nuts, grains and seeds.)
Vegan Food Businesses Struggle in the Pandemic
The growing popularity of meatless proteins is what's driving business at many of the newer vegan eateries in the Bay Area, like The Butcher’s Son in downtown Berkeley.
The restaurant opened early in 2016, and co-owner Christina Stobing said it was an immediate hit with vegans and non-vegans alike.
"Going vegan, there's not a lot of options," Stobing said, who's also vegan. "Like, you can't just go and get a Philly cheesesteak sandwich or a Reuben. We wanted to provide all those things that we were missing in a restaurant."
Stobing said business was going so well, and they were planning to expand. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, they were forced to shrink. The restaurant let go of roughly two-thirds of its employees. A small business loan from the federal government has helped tide them over.
"We've had to to step back and say, 'OK, can we stay open this week? Can we stay open next week?' " Stobing said. "Because things are changing."
It’s not just popular vegan restaurants that now find themselves facing an unpredictable future. Vegan grocery stores are also having a hard time.
Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market in Oakland’s Chinatown has been around since the 1990s. The store's owner, Samuel Wong, said the market has a loyal following. He counts meat-abstaining members of the nearby Buddhist temple among his customers, as well as people who drive in from places like Santa Rosa.
Layonna's customers include other vegan businesses, such as restaurants. Wong said the margins are normally pretty good. But that’s changed lately.
"The business, it dropped a lot," Wong said.
The store laid off three of its seven workers and is operating at reduced hours. Wong said he’s had to make some adjustments to survive, like delivering to restaurant clients himself, and signing up for a food delivery service to get Layonna’s products out to individual customers.
"A lot of people don't want to go out," Wong said. "So I have to sign up for this kind of service, even though they charge 30%."
The Challenge of Running Any Small Food Business Right Now
Even at the best of times, the restaurant industry — no matter the cuisine — is a hard game.
Longtime Bay Area food writer Virginia Miller said the margins are almost always on the thin side, and that’s particularly the case for independent businesses and small local chains.
"If they have any profit at all, usually 10% max, is the best most restaurants do," Miller said.
Between line items like rent, labor and sourcing high-quality produce, Miller said the cost of feeding people in the Bay Area is especially high. Vegan outlets are no different from other kinds of small food businesses. They’ve all been hit by the pandemic in similar ways and are all trying to figure out how to come back.
"I've heard predictions of anywhere from 30% to 80% of our restaurants will not reopen," Miller said.
Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a San Francisco restaurant industry advocacy group, said reopening a restaurant is a long and complex process. Restaurant owners have to weigh many different factors as they consider how and when to reopen — or whether it's worth reopening at all.
"People think restaurants can turn on a dime," Thomas said. "It doesn't work that way. You've got to get your employees. You've got to pay back your vendors. You've got about a week to two weeks of ordering the food and getting everything going again."
If they do decide to fully reopen, restaurants are having to come to grips with a bunch of unforeseen factors to do with COVID-19.
At Wildseed, an upscale, plant-based restaurant in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, director of culinary Alejandro Morgan said it’s been tough to entice workers back at a time when many are making more money claiming unemployment benefits than from working their old jobs. Plus, they're staying safer.
"If I got my job back, then I would have to weigh things, you know, and say, 'OK, well, do I risk getting sick and getting my family sick for a job that probably won't pay as much as before?' " Morgan said.
Then there’s navigating all the new health and safety restrictions, such as limiting the seating capacity to allow for physical distancing. Morgan said Wildseed has applied for a permit to put in extra outdoor seating. But even with the additional outdoor seating, they’ll still be operating at around 30% capacity.
There’s only so long that it makes sense to carry on that way, and many Bay Area counties have put reopening plans on hold for indoor dining. Given all the variables, Morgan said it’s hard to predict what it will take to reopen properly.
"We've made plans, but, you know, usually we scratch those plans and restart," Morgan said. "There could be something tomorrow, like, 'You guys gotta close back again.' I'm really hoping that's not the case, because that would be very devastating."
Getting Creative in Order to Survive
With profits disappearing and things being so unpredictable right now, restaurants are having to get creative if they want to survive.
Takeout has obviously taken on a much larger role in restaurants' core business as a result of the pandemic. That's true for many high-end restaurants that would never have dreamed of boxing up their fancy dishes in the past.
The trend towards takeout means adjusting — not everything travels well in a box — and figuring out more efficient ways to work in the kitchen so restaurants can meet the demand for takeout as well as serve customers on-site.
With people preferring to eat at home, delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub are also becoming a must for restaurants, even though several owners interviewed for this story complained about the high fees.
And then there are the new advances in technology, which allow diners to do things like order meals from their tables using their phones. Wildseed’s Morgan said these systems appeal to restaurants because they reduce labor costs.
"And maybe for the guests, too, right, to feel comfortable," he added. "They want to limit the amount of interaction they have with another person at this time."
But he’s wary of going with the technology because he said human interaction is still a key part of good hospitality.
"One of the big problems with this whole COVID-19 era is that we are going to lose a lot of human elements to everything that we do," Morgan said. "I have passion for hospitality. And that's something that is going to hurt."
Not to Be Underestimated: The Human Element
Some chefs are making personal connections the cornerstone of their new business model, even if it means lowering production.
One small food business KQED spoke with for this story, The Presumptuous Pepita, relies entirely on building long-term, one-on-one relationships with customers — and it seems to be flourishing in spite of the pandemic.
The force behind The Presumptuous Pepita is personal vegan chef Victoria Aguilar, who describes themself as a "queer, non-binary, brown business owner who was born and raised on Ohlone Land."
Aguilar said they launched The Presumptuous Pepita last December after tiring of the fixed hours and limited menus that usually come with restaurant work.
"I like the intimacy of being able to cook for folks and then to bring it to them, especially during this time when folks really can't see many people," Aguilar said. "And so we've already built relationships."
Aguilar is The Presumptuous Pepita’s sole employee. So their overhead is low. And the chef said business has been booming since the stay-at-home orders went into place.
"I'm making a good amount of money," they said. "I’m profiting more than I thought I would."
Aguilar is proud of the fact that small, niche businesses like The Presumptuous Pepita are building community, even in the middle of a global pandemic. During the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Aguilar said they delivered free meals to protesters.
"A lot of small businesses like myself, and other vegan small businesses, are doing the work of supporting protesters who are on the front lines," they said. "We're feeding compassionately and giving the best that we can right now."
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