Viva La Vegan!

Surveying the crowd in Fitzroy's Smith and Daughters on a busy Saturday evening it's hard to define exactly who the core market for this restaurant is. As one would expect of any popular inner North restaurant, there's a collection of hipsters with their hair and beards immaculately trimmed and a few glamorous looking couples who are done up like they intend to hit the cocktail bars on Brunswick Street after they finish dining. In addition, there's a couple of people at the bar wearing black Sea Shepard hoodies and tables of inner city professionals. One thing this disparate crowd has in common though is that on this particular evening they are all eating vegan. Having opened just over a year ago, Smith and Daughters has made its presence quickly felt as one of the hippest places to eat. Sitting at the vegan end of the dietary spectrum means that everything on the menu is plant based, the food contains no meat, dairy, eggs or animal products of any kind.

Smith__DaughtersImage from Smith & Daughters FaceBook page

On a Sunday afternoon co-owner of the business Mo Wyse tells me “We did 550 meals last night.” 550 sounds more like the sort of figures I would expect from a Sizzler in the suburbs, not a vegan restaurant that isn't much bigger than the average cafe. Evidently there are now many people willing to forgo a meal that contains meat.

Vegan and vegetarian businesses are on the upswing at the moment. Smith and Daughters is just one of a bunch of businesses that have sprung up to cater for consumers who adhere to, or flirt with, vegetarianism and veganism. It's now common to see vegetarian options on a menu at most restaurants. A visit to a bookstore will reveal a cooking section laden with vegan and vegetarian cook books. Major supermarkets now stock lines of tofu, vegie burgers and vegie sausages as a matter of course. Ikea in the UK has begun selling vegan meatballs and Beyonce has launched a vegan home delivery service. It's everywhere. There aren't any definitive numbers, but approximately 5 per cent of Australians identify as vegetarian and 1 per cent as vegan. Outside of this though, are the number of people who say they have at least one meal a week that doesn't contain meat, this figure is somewhere around 50-60 per cent of the population depending on which survey you refer to.    

Evidence of the changing tastes can be noted in the declining sales of red meat across Australia for the past 20 years, and last year for the first time the popular recipe website reported that more people searched their site for tofu than sausages. One of the primary motivations for avoiding meat is health reasons. According to the American Cancer Society, vegetarians have lower instances of colon cancer and heart disease and a 2013 study conducted in California determined that vegetarians live longer than meat eaters. Concern over the environmental impacts of animal agriculture is also making consumers think twice about the amount of meat they eat. Animals raised on farms are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all worldwide transportation combined according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Additionally, people's growing awareness of the questionable treatment of animals in factory farms is seeing more people steadily embracing a dinner plate that is sans meat.

Knowledge of these issues are being driven by global campaigns such as Meat Free Mondays, which promotes vegetarian eating on Mondays and has been raising awareness about the benefits to the planet of reducing meat consumption. Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Joaquin Phoenix, James Cameron and Tobey Maguire all openly endorse a vegan diet, and are helping take it from a fringe idea into mainstream consciousness.    

However, it hasn't always been as easy to find a venue to devour some tofu as it is today in Fitzroy. The President of Vegetarian Victoria since 2007, Mark Donnedu, who has maintained a meat free lifestyle for over two decades says that the last several years have seen a real peak in interest surrounding vegetarian and vegan eating. “It's increasing exponentially,” he says, “These days you can go into anywhere even a pub and there's vegan options, whereas going back 20 odd years ago... vegetarian was hard enough, vegan was almost impossible. In the supermarket it was unheard of to get vegan products, these days you can find vegan cheese in Coles.”

Vegetarian Victoria lists 139 vegetarian and vegan eateries in Victoria “I remember six or seven years ago it was about half that ” Mark says. He attributes this increase to the Internet spreading information about the health benefits of a vegan diet and also the unpleasant truth of the inherent cruelty present in animal agriculture. “There's 7 billion people on the planet yet we kill 70 billion animals every year, it's the biggest form of suffering and cruelty on the planet.”   

CFS_frontCruelty Free Shop opening blog

Which brings us further along Brunswick Street from Smith and Daughters to the Cruelty Free Shop, situated across the road from the long established and heavily patronised Vegie Bar and next door to the vegetarian burger eatery Lord of the Fries. The business opened in early 2014 selling vegan food, cook books and shoes, or as the name of the establishment suggests - products free of animal cruelty. Here one can purchase vegan “cheese” - made from coconut or soy; veggie burgers, coconut ice cream, shoes and handbags made without leather and even vegan dog food.

The Cruelty Free Shop originally began as a mail order business about 14 years ago to act as a one stop shop for vegans to get items that are entirely plant based and free from the “cruelty” of the meat and dairy industries. Now the business has two locations and over 1500 items for sale. Since the the Melbourne store opened on Brunswick Street there has been a steady increase in customers seeking out ethical and healthy substitutes for items traditionally produced with animal products.

Manager of the business Paul Freeman, a 15 year veteran of vegan living, seems like someone who has found his niche working at the Cruelty Free Shop. He speaks enthusiastically about the merits of a vegan lifestyle and about the part the business plays in catering to and promoting this lifestyle.

“All the staff are vegan, the owners and all the managers are strong advocates of veganism, when we have our planning meetings we always talk about two things, ways to make the shop go really well and ways to improve our advocacy.” This position is well evidenced by a sign in the shop's window just before Easter that implored people to “ditch dairy” and a chalk board at the front door of the shop advised visitors that “A massive 92 percent of all land degradation in Australia is caused by Animal Industries.”

While the core of the consumer base at the shop are the vegan customers, the business also caters to vegetarians. “Vegetarians can also come in here and buy whatever they want without having to check labels.” Paul tells me. The business also finds customers visiting who have no choice but to avoid certain animal products. “Around Easter and Christmas we get a lot of people who are dairy intolerant.” To a lesser extent the business also caters to those meat eaters who are seeking to reduce the amount of meat they consume. “A lot of people who do eat meat are starting to become aware that it's not necessarily healthy or good for the environment” Paul says, and providing them with the option of mock meat represents a way for people reduce their meat intake without completely forfeiting the taste and texture of food they like.

The_Cornish_ArmsImage from The Cornish Arms website

Other businesses have cashed in on the interest in meat free eating without turning away their carnivorous customers. The Cornish Arms Hotel on Sydney Rd in Brunswick looks from the outset like the sort of fairly typical Melbourne bar one would find in the inner North, a selection of boutique beers on tap, and bottles of hoppy American ales that Melbourne hipsters have developed a taste for. The menu also appears as one would expect - steak burgers, chips and chicken parmas; but alongside this menu the Cornish Arms also offers a extensive vegan menu. Vegan “chicken” burgers, vegan pizzas and even vegan fish and chips all hold their own in this pub. The menu was introduced about three years ago after the management of the venue identified a niche market and the vegan options now count for about half of the meals sold there.

“We embrace everyone,” manger Thomas Mahoney explains, “for a vegan to still be able to come to a Melbourne pub and have an iconic Melbourne pub experience of a parma and a pot even though they've made their ethical choice not to consume animals any more that's where the message gets encapsulated.” At the Cornish Arms he says “(vegans) can still hang out with their mates, have a few drinks and have traditional pub style food.”

From a business point of view, appealing to herbivores creates a point of difference from other pubs in the area and it means his pub will always be their first preference and they will bring their vegan and non vegan friends with them.  “The choice of coming here or to a nearby pub is that they can get the options here and they will bring their friends and family with them.” Thomas explains, and he says the inclusiveness is a wonderful thing to see as vegans and non-vegans eat and drink together.

The most popular item here for vegan diners is the Vegan Parma, “I haven't seen one replicated anywhere else” Thomas says. Every week the Cornish Arms also features a vegan special. Recently they trialled a vegan Big Mac which proved so popular it ran for two weeks in the pub. “We sold about 350 items.” Thomas says. “It's a homage to what they used to eat.”

The recent inclination of some to avoid animal products has also helped long running vegan businesses shake off the stigma of being seen as unusual or weird. Vegan Wares, a shoe shop situated on Smith St in Collingwood has been operating from the same location for the best part of twenty years and are pioneers in selling footwear that doesn't use leather.  Director Peter Cabena tells me, “(When the business started) people who were vegetarian were very excited and accepting, but there wasn't that many of them, people who weren't veg thought it was a joke.” Co-director Bonnie Murthy elaborates: “The spread of veganism has taken the taboo away it carried in the past.”

The day may well come though when businesses offering meat free options become a necessity. As humans continue to exhaust the planet's resources, attention is increasingly being drawn to the inefficient and highly polluting meat and dairy industries. In April 2015 The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in the US who are tasked with recommending to Americans the best diet based on current scientific knowledge, concluded that a vegan diet had the least impact on the environment and the most potential health benefits.

As Mark Donnedu points out to me, meat production is ultimately unsustainable as the planets population continues to grow: “The amount of water it takes to make a kilo of beef is 50000 litres, according to the CSIRO and a kilo of potatoes is only 500 litres.”

So if you want to save water, take shorter showers, and more importantly think about swapping beef for a vegan meal, you no longer need to look too far to find a place that will serve you one.

Steve_PhillipsSteve Phillips is a Melbourne based vegan musician and writer. When not pursuing awesome vegan food he plays keyboard in the reggae/ hip hop outfit Echo Drama and walks/ carries his vegan chihuahua Anarki around the inner city of Melbourne.

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