June 13, 2024


World's finest Food

Burgers, burritos, lobster rolls – but hold the meat at VEG OUT, a local vegan food festival

The entrepreneur opened a vegan-only restaurant in Schenectady this spring, her second attempt after a brief hiccup.

Business is brisk at the Take Two Cafe, with customers diving into their self-styled comfort food: Burgers, burritos, even lobster rolls.

No meat. 

Schenectady’s only vegan restaurant opened at a time when the meat industry is experiencing profound disruption and plant-based diets are becoming more mainstream. 

Slaughterhouses faced manpower issues in the early days of the pandemic, leading to shortages. Meat prices continue to soar — posing a grave threat to chicken wing nights — while the plant-based meat industry is becoming increasingly competitive as fast food chains embrace substitutes and incorporate products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods into their menus to reel in captive audiences and vegans alike — including the aggressive chicken nugget rollout announced by Impossible last week.

McDonald’s, too, announced plans to test its first-ever plant-based burger last week.

“People have been more inclined to try something new,” Heilmann said. 

Take Two Cafe will be among the vendors participating in VEG OUT, the festival seeking to highlight vegan food culture in the Capital Region. Over 20 vendors will sell food in downtown Troy on Sunday along the streets surrounding Monument Square.

This year’s event, the first since 2019, marks the second installment for the organizers, Capital Region Vegan Network, whose membership is gradually growing and now sits at 110 people. 

An increased awareness in reducing harm to animals and the environment is another factor for those seeking out plant-based lifestyles, said Andrea Shaye, Capital Region Vegan Network’s operations director, who cited a recent UN report urging people to transition away from meat and dairy products as an additional accelerant.

“We’re just seeing a huge increase in interest in vegan food,” Shaye said.

Joining the aforementioned factors were amateur cooks tinkering in the kitchen during shutdowns.

VEG OUT is Sunday, Sept. 19 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in downtown Troy on the streets surrounding Monument Square: Second Street and Broadway.

“Being at home so much gave people the ability to tackle things they wanted to try for a long time,” said Sarah Shearer, the event’s lead organizer. 

While exact data remains hazy about how many Americans pursue a vegan lifestyle, data on the consumption of plant-based meats is more readily available.

The plant-based protein market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.5 percent over the next decade, according to one recent market study. A Gallup poll released in early 2020 revealed 41 percent of Americans had tried a plant-based meat substitute.

Vegan-only venues remain somewhat rare in Troy, Albany and Schenectady. Mainstays include Burrito Burrito and Wizard Burger, located in Troy and Albany, respectively, while others, including the restaurant and wholesaler Berben & Wolff’s, are undergoing highly-publicized transitions.

However, more restaurants over the past half-decade have starting to acknowledge the need to accommodate plant-based diets and are incorporating more vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options into their menus beyond simply house salads or tofu-based items, Shaye said, who also pointed at venues like Little Anthony’s, the longstanding Colonie pizza parlor that recently went meat-free. 

“I think restaurants see the writing on the wall,” Shaye said. “I would expect in the next 5 to 10 years, we’ll see a greater shift in that direction.”

Heilmann, too, has noticed more restaurants experimenting with plant-based options, including the Nest in Schenectady, which has introduced a beet steak to their menu.

Yet even introducing one-off items can present growing pains for some restaurants, Heilmann said. Some restaurateurs, for instance, may feel uneasy tinkering with unfamiliar products, which don’t always act the same as their animal-derived counterparts.

Cheese can be notoriously tricky, she said, and it takes a certain amount of finesse to get plant-based alternatives to melt and stretch properly.

Heilmann, who bills Take Two as “vegan comfort food,” estimates she cooks a new item in her test kitchen as many as 100 times to iron out wrinkles before officially adding it to the menu.

“I think restaurants were afraid of the demand at first,” Heilmann said, “but the demand is there.”

Hitting the right price point can also be challenging, she said (although the cost of plant-based meats is now leveling out), while some may be wary of ensuring a steady supply and maintaining the ability to keep an item in stock once introduced.

And then there are upstarts whose products are starting to surface at pop-up events and farmers markets.

That includes newcomers like Albany’s Chewish, which offers Chinese fare, and Meaty Max Vegan Meats, a Putnam County-based operation that are rolling out a date-based meat substitute similar to beef jerky. 

Chef-owner Maxwell Singer-Aguanno, who lives in Albany, grew up in a meat-chomping Italian family whose recipe playbook he has turned for inspiration, primarily antipasto salad and charcuterie boards. 

“Look at the world we’re living in,” said Alyssa Ladzinski, partner and marketing director at Meaty Max. “All we can do is make healthy choices for our planet.”

One misnomer Meaty Max Vegan Meats is trying to correct is that plant-based meats, which are designed to look and taste like real meat, are as healthy as plants:

They’re not. While those products are cholesterol-free, they’re not strictly health foods, which is where Meaty Max sees inroads for their gluten-free product. 

Honest Weight Food Co-Op, which is sponsoring VEG OUT, has been ahead of the curve in catering to vegans and vegetarians before going meatless became a trending topic, and only started carrying more meat and seafood products since relocating to their current location in 2013.

“We started 45 years ago with predominantly plant-based options,” said Amy Ellis, a community relations specialist at Honest Weight. “It’s who we are and who we’ve always been.”

It’s now easier than ever to pursue a plant-based diet, she said.

“Products have gotten healthier and more creative,” Ellis said. “Years ago, it was tofu and everything was soy-based.”

Now foods are increasingly nut-based, she said.

Heilmann, too, noted the increasingly-sophisticated options, including cheese and shrimp alternatives, and hopes VEG OUT will reel in foodies and regular eaters alike who wouldn’t ordinarily go out of their way to pursue plant-based items.

“Everybody does something unique to each specific business,” said Heilmann, who is mapping out an aggressive expansion strategy in the upcoming months. 

With all of the options, Shaye acknowledges adopting a plant-based lifestyle can be daunting.

“Think of veganism as a practice,” she said. “We can always make choices to improve and do better, and working towards that is the right way to go.”