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Members of Vegan Grand Rapids gathered for a vegan food and beer pairing at SpeakEZ Lounge last December.

The vegan movement in Grand Rapids
Local vegan patronage and menu offerings are
gaining ground and reflect national trends.

By Alexandra Fluegel
Photography by Johnny Quirin

When Ryan Cappelletti and his wife moved to Grand Rapids seven years ago, they quickly discovered something important was missing from their new home: places to eat.

There was no shortage of quality dining destinations, but finding restaurants offering vegan fare was another story. They were transplants from upstate New York, where Cappelletti said there was “a lot of crazy vegan stuff.”

In Grand Rapids, he found himself having to master the art of menu manipulation, piecing together ingredients to create dishes he could enjoy. Before long, Cappelletti was using his knowledge as a vegan chef to assist local restaurant owners in creating menu options for local herbivores. He wasn’t always met with open arms.

Brick Road Pizza owners Cindy and Jody Talbert said they were warned about Cappelletti’s vegan ideas before they opened their Wealthy Street eatery. When the restaurant opened in 2008, the Talberts included a handful of vegan options on the menu.

Today, Cindy said, vegan selections account for nearly half of their business.

In the past five years, Grand Rapids has seen a major increase in the amount of restaurants offering vegan fare — so much so that Cappelletti remarked, “It’s crazy to think that Grand Rapids has such a large vegan outlet, but it does.”

The increase in local vegan patronage reflects national trends suggesting that not only are more people adopting plant-based diets and demanding more options from local establishments, but also that restaurants are beginning to view vegan cooking as a new way of creating fresh dishes and as a means of attracting a new breed of foodies.

Thanks to high-profile herbivores such as Natalie Portman, Ellen DeGeneres and even former president Bill Clinton, veganism is becoming a more accepted practice; however, due to oft-cited connections to social justice and animal rights issues, there can still be certain connotations associated with the “vegan” label.

 

In the kitchen, Chef Scott Petersen prepares Autumn Wellington, puff pastry filled with bulgur wheat, quinoa, walnuts and mushrooms topped with a burgundy wine vegetable demi glace.

“There are a lot of stereotypes. A vegan diet does deprive you of the standard American diet. Thus, more passionate people gravitate toward it,” said former reporter Emily Richett, who adopted a plant-based diet three years ago.

Jon Dunn, one of the creators of local website and blog VeganGR.com, echoed Richett’s sentiment. “If you say the word ‘vegan,’ a lot of people conjure up images of the all-black Converse-wearing, mink-releasing PETA activists, but vegans come in all shapes and sizes.”

Dunn created the online vegan dining guide two years ago with girlfriend Kolene Allen after the couple made the switch to veganism after years of not eating meat.

“We were new vegans and were looking for a guide of where to eat, and there really wasn’t one. It was a great way to force ourselves to go out and eat and explore, and at the same time put something together that can help other people,” Allen said.

There was no shortage of places to check out, given the number of restaurants beginning to incorporate vegan and vegetarian options into their menus.

“Cooking a vegan meal is as creative and can be as interesting as making something involving meat,” Dunn said.

Dunn and Allen point to Marie Catrib’s and Stella’s Lounge as early examples of eateries that created dishes that were not only vegan-friendly but so delicious that even fans of red meat were inclined to give them a try.

Many of the city’s most lauded establishments, including San Chez, Grove and The Green Well, offer vegan fare. For some chefs and owners, incorporating vegan options into their menus is just good business. The newly opened Two Beards Deli carries a variety of vegan-friendly sandwiches; SpeakEZ Lounge recently launched an all-vegan menu available upon request.

“There’s this huge shift in the way Grand Rapids is starting to think about food,” said Margaux Drake, a raw food expert and “healthy eats” specialist on WOTV 4 Women, a new station “for women by women.”

“People are having the opportunity to taste plant-based cuisine and see that it can be satiating and taste good,” Drake said.

This is the vision Cappelletti had when, in 2011, he helped found Bartertown Diner, one of the city’s first all-vegan establishments.

“I’m vegan but I’m actually really into food,” he said. In fact, he said, he doesn’t want Bartertown to be known as vegan-only. “It’s just another style of cooking, another way of going out to eat.”

Matthew Russell, whose Wednesday Evening Cookies company specializes in vegan confections, agreed.

“At first I used to play up the vegan angle because people saw it as a niche market or a health food sort of thing. Now I don’t really make a point to label the things I make anything other than what they are: cookies or cupcakes or pecan pie or whatever. They speak for themselves, and people like to eat them.”

Drake pointed out that social media also has played a role in introducing vegan fare to the masses. “People are constantly posting pictures of what they’re making, and the photos look appetizing.”

Adrienne Wallace, creator of vegan and vegetarian food blog Veggie Bon Vivant describes herself as “vegan-ish” and uses her platform at vegbonvivant.wordpress.com to share recipes and tips. She describes the blog as a record of “some successes and some failures. Most of them delicious.”

Wallace, who adopted a vegetarian diet while in college, said that for those who choose to adopt a plant-based diet, no matter what the reason, it’s a lifelong process.

“It’s a lot of wondering in terms of how you function in the everyday world,” she said. Though not afraid to ask questions about ingredients on the menu, she admits that dining out can be intimidating for vegetarians.

“A lot of times people can be afraid to lobby for themselves, but it’s all about educating yourself. When you’re making a lifestyle change of any sort, you need to become educated, and that takes time.”

 

Ryan Cappelletti and Matthew Russell at Bartertown Diner.

Wallace said she’s begun to examine other aspects of her life, as well — the products she uses and clothes she buys, for example — and said that Grand Rapids is beginning to be home to more than just vegan-friendly restaurants.

Angela Topp opened Tree Huggers, an “earth-friendly retail and grocery,” in Holland in 2010 and added a Grand Rapids location, 947 Wealthy St. SE, in August 2011. It’s the first package-free grocery in Grand Rapids and gives those looking for vegan ingredients a one-stop shop for their cooking needs.

Topp said the initial catalyst for opening her store was to create a retail store that was environmentally friendly, and after being inspired by the folks at Bartertown, she decided she wanted to provide a vegan-friendly grocery option, as well.

“I wanted a place where vegans and vegetarians could feel safe and buy from someone that has gone the same path and found the same frustrations,” said Topp.

Tree Huggers has never carried animal products, and Topp said she and her staff aim to create an environment where people can learn about the foods they’re consuming.

“I know the frustration of trying to live a certain lifestyle and having information come at you from all different angles,” she said.

Just down the street from Topp’s Wealthy Street location is another businesswoman incorporating vegan-friendly options into services.

Stephanie Strowbridge, owner of Moxie Beauty & Hair Parlor, a full-service salon and hub for vintage enthusiasts, said it wasn’t her intention to cater to a vegan lifestyle, but she wanted to make the option available for those who desired it.

“There are really great companies who not only put out safe products but they’re using wind energy, doing everything to reduce their footprint, and for me that’s important because one thing affects the other,” she said. “What we do in our lives will affect someone else’s life in the future and our planet, for sure.”

Strowbridge and her husband moved to Grand Rapids a little over four years ago, and she said she’s thrilled with the progress the city has made in terms of vegan options.

“There really is this great sense of community and support, which is important when you do have eating habits or a lifestyle that is outside the ‘norm.’” GR

   
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