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DBC: Vegan business booming

Nacho cheese made from cashews. Yogurt made from coconut. Burger patties made from soy proteins.

These types of meat and dairy alternatives are gaining popularity across Denton as more Americans transition to a vegan diet, a style of eating in which people don't consume any animal byproducts, from meat to dairy to honey.

The first all-vegan dining hall in the country opened at the University of North Texas, Mean Greens, in 2011 and the movement has continued to grow. More restaurants are offering vegan options, grocery options without meat and dairy have exploded and now Denton's first all-vegan restaurant, Spiral Diner, is set to open this month. 

For Tesa Morin, a Denton resident who has been vegan since 2010, things have gotten easier and more visible, and she thinks the diet will keep trending upward. She started a website chronicling vegan options in 2011 after realizing it was hard to figure out what people could eat where, and has gained hundreds of Instagram followers for posting where she can eat out that includes vegan options. 

"I think it’s a lot easier nowadays than it was back then, and of course things come and go — I've had to change the information a lot over the years if they open or close or change what they offer," Morin said. "I feel like Denton has the community support, they have the interest and I think Spiral is going to show a lot of other businesses that they could do all-vegan and do well."

While the popularity of this style of eating has gained steam slowly in recent years, it has surged in the past three nationally and locally. A study by GlobalData found that 6 percent of Americans consider themselves vegan, up from 1 percent in 2014.

How restaurants are meeting the demand

With the increase comes an increased demand for nontraditional products, innovative replacements and a desire to make vegan food crave-able. 

For Loni Puckett, co-owner of the Juice Lab, she just wants healthy food to taste good. Plus, experimenting with new kinds of food is her passion, after she left microbiology to work on the science of food in her own juice bar and restaurant. 

Earlier this year, the juice and smoothie shop rolled out its first food menu, where about 90 percent of the options are vegan. 

Other existing restaurants around Denton also cater to vegan needs, like tofu scrambles and baked goods at Seven Mile Cafe or the recently introduced vegan cheese at J&J's Pizza. Having more vegan options shows the Denton restaurant owners are recognizing the growing demand for this kind of food, Morin said. 

"In general, I think restaurants are thinking more about it and sometimes I have people contact me and say, 'hey we’re offering this — why don't you check it out' sort of thing — so they’re aware this need is out there," she said.

Even with increased options, she's especially excited for Spiral Diner to open, a restaurant where she knows she can walk in and eat anything on the menu, no questions asked. 

Amy McNutt, the restaurant's co-owner, is spending her days in Denton trying to get the diner ready to open this month after some setbacks. Since she helped open the original Spiral Diner in August 2002 in Fort Worth, she's seen the vegan food industry grow and evolve. What started as a three-employee operation in 800 square feet has expanded to a larger location in Fort Worth, one in Dallas and one in Denton. Once the restaurant in Denton opens, the restaurants will have about 150 employees. 

At first, McNutt said she wanted to prove a point that vegan food could be good, comforting and accessible. As a lifetime animal lover, she had been vegetarian for as long as she could remember, but didn't learn about animal cruelty at dairy farms and when producing other animal byproducts until she was in college. 

"When I went vegan, that was 20 years ago, back then the internet hardly existed," she said. "I got a flyer form a dude in Venice Beach, then I had to get a book to read about it. Now, you can just Google if you have any inkling about wanting to know about it." 

This increase in available information has helped turn more people to a vegan lifestyle, and in turn, to her business, she said. Starting out, she wasn't sure how she'd fill seats but over the past eight years, business has grown gradually and built a loyal following in Dallas and Fort Worth. 

In the past few years though, that gradual growth has reached a new level McNutt didn't initially anticipate. Now, a normal wait time for a table at both existing restaurants is an hour and a half on the weekends, sometimes two. 

The restaurant's cult-like following has helped spur this third location in Denton, which McNutt said helps take some of the pressure off of the Dallas and Fort Worth locations. 

Creating comfort and familiarity with new kinds of products and low pricing

McNutt was determined to show Texas that vegan food can still taste good and be accessible when she started Spiral Diner. Down to the concept, she wanted it to be approachable and something people knew — the classic American diner. 

The menu is just as approachable and vast as a traditional diner, with sections for blue plate specials like spaghetti and meatballs to burgers and wraps to desserts like banana splits. 

"It's comfort food, stuff you grew up eating, nothing too scary, so people can make that first baby step into knowing that if there's any flavor in the world you miss or think you can't live without, you can get it from plants," she said. "It’s anything you could possibly want. That’s why our menu is so huge, because we’re trying to prove a point — we can make it all and you won’t miss out on anything."

Each component is crafted in-house, partially because starting out in 2002 there weren't a lot of options for restaurants to buy different kinds of vegan cheese and proteins. McNutt remembers having to make powdered sugar when the business first started, because there wasn't a type she could buy that wasn't produced with bone char. While the restaurant now buys vegan powdered sugar, most other components are made in-house: The cashew nacho cheese; protein replacements like seitan made from gluten; and all the sauces and salad dressings.

To be able to do this, McNutt has a huge staff at each restaurant, about 50 people and a lot of them are in the back just doing the prep work or working on bakery items, like custom ordered cakes and pies. Even with the extra employees, McNutt is able to keep costs down to about $10 a plate across the board. 

"We could make more money if we made it more simple, but that's not the point," she said. "We’re trying to persuade people to eat vegan, so if they’re not blown away by the amount of options, it’s like, what’s the point of Spiral?"

At JuiceLab, just about everything on the menu can be made vegan, from build-your-own burgers to nacho plates to grilled cheeses.

By making these kinds of vegan foods accessible, Puckett wants customers to branch and out try replacements of the foods they love, whether it's a vegan raw cheesecake or vegan mac-and-cheese grilled cheese. What started as a way for her to eat healthier turned into her making vegan and gluten-free treats for family and friends at the holidays is now at the core of her business.

"That's what I'm always pining after for people to say about my food — 'Wow, I can't believe this is gluten-free or this is healthy,' because that's a common misconception that for health food you need to sacrifice taste or convenience and that's just not true," she said. "You may have to be more creative, but it's there. You just have to play with it."

Prices are able to stay down at JuiceLab for the food menu also by using byproducts from other menu items, Puckett said. For example, after they make almond milk to go with smoothies, the leftover almond pulp is then dehydrated to make into almond meal and almond four for baked goods. While juices are pricey because the amount of vegetables and fruits packed in, it's still possible to come in and get a $3 baked good or a full breakfast for $7.50, Puckett said.

Plus, vegan baking is less expensive nowadays since cost drivers like dairy and eggs are eliminated from the mix, she said.

Growth and demand for vegan products

At the Cupboard in Denton, vegan products have been on shelves since they opened, said Paul Tanis, the store's general manager. 

They've also always had a large base of vegetarian products, but in recent years these have made a switch to being vegan, Tanis said. A lot of chips and granola that might be vegetarian but have trace amounts of whey protein or other animal products have switched to other additives that are vegan. 

Paul Tanis, Cupboard general manager, poses in front of Cupboard Natural Foods.DRC file photo
Paul Tanis, Cupboard general manager, poses in front of Cupboard Natural Foods.
DRC file photo

Now, there's a variety of vegan goods across the store from jerky to half a dozen different kinds of non-dairy milk to protein replacements.

"We’ve definitely had a continued increase in vegan product demand and the selection keeps growing as well," Tanis said. "One thing that used to be was people were looking for vegan meat alternatives, and I think that’s completely expanded now into every food option category."

In addition to the variety of products expanding, the quality has too, Tanis said. When he first tried soy cheese 20 years ago, it was awful, he said. It would stick to the roof of his mouth and not melt when heated. Now, the vegan cheese replacements are so good that they're used in almost all of the Cupboard's cafe prepared food options instead of dairy cheese.

Between options in groceries, recipes at home and growth of vegan dining options, the barrier to become vegan has been lowered and is becoming more accessible, McNutt of Spiral Diner said.

"We live in a day and age where eating meat is not necessary, it’s not like we’re hunting and gathering," she said. "If you live in modern society, there’s no reason to not do it and people are being exposed to the information to make that decision."

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889.