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A sesame pancake sandwich in a takeout wrapper houses carrots, a mixture of darkened mushroom, and other accoutrements on an orange countertop
The mushroom sloppy at Fat Choy
Aaron Venn/Fat Choy

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A New Wave of Vegan Restaurants Highlights a Hunger for Change During the Pandemic

Meatless dining was gaining momentum in New York City before the pandemic — now it’s even more urgent

For restaurants privileged enough to keep their doors open right now, the pandemic has given a prolonged moment of pause and a chance to realign values. For some restaurant and bar owners, that’s meant shifting the focus of their menus away from meat — and its politics — or opening new businesses altogether.

Since the start of the pandemic, at least a dozen vegan and vegetarian restaurants have opened their doors in New York City. While this style of cooking isn’t new — it’s been at the heart of culinary traditions of various communities of color for centuries — the move toward vegan menus has taken on greater urgency in the last seven months with the confluence of the coronavirus.

When Ruffian reopened in May after the coronavirus shutdown, the East Village wine bar removed all meat options from its menu, focusing instead on vegetarian and vegan dishes. “We had been flirting with the idea prior to the pandemic,” says partner and sommelier Patrick Cournot. “All of our cooks and chefs are vegetarian.”

As a natural wine bar, Ruffian commits to choosing wines with a smaller ecological footprint. Cournot says it “seemed weird” the restaurant didn’t approach its food with the same philosophy. “We felt if we’re not going to take the risk now, when we had the time, we were probably never going to take the risk,” he says.

It wasn’t just a culinary decision, though. Since removing meat — and some dairy — from its menu, Ruffian has been able to lower its prices by approximately 20 percent, according to Cournot — a decision whose importance is underscored by the pandemic’s impact on the hospitality industry at large.

“Not only does it give more control in the quality of the vegetables we’re using, but our customers are in the [hospitality] industry and [are] neighborhood people,” says Cournot. “We saw all of our friends lose their jobs. We wanted a price point to better reflect that.”

Keeping prices low is also part of what motivated Alicia Guevara to open Guevara’s, a Clinton Hill cafe she launched in partnership with Daniel Mekelburg, the owner of neighborhood deli and grocery Mekelburg’s. At the new spot, Guevara sells meat- and dairy-free takes on the Cuban dishes she grew up eating, as well as coffee, pastries, and other goodies. “There’s this idea that vegan food served in restaurants has to be expensive,” Guevara says. “We want all the dishes to be under $10.”

When Guevara and Mekelburg had the opportunity to open a new venture, they knew they wanted to open a restaurant that counteracted the meat-heavy nature of Mekelburg’s, located right across the street. “In times like these, when it feels like we can’t control anything, the one thing you can control is what you eat,” Guevara says.

Guevara pointed to the meat industry’s impacts on the climate as another reason she opened the new meatless restaurant. “The California fires are no joke, and it’s going to keep getting worse,” she says of the state’s ongoing crisis.

Two fried empanadas are covered in red and green sauces and accompanied by a sprig of cilantro. A cup of coffee sits in the background.
Empanadas at Guevara’s
Guevara’s [Official]

Guevara isn’t alone in that thinking. Restaurateurs Justin Lee and Jared Moeller are not vegan, but working in the hospitality industry for years opened their eyes to the environmental waste that occurs at many of the city’s restaurants. In September, the duo opened their first restaurant together, a takeout and delivery operation that they hope can help reduce reliance on the meat industry.

At the new restaurant, called Fat Choy, Lee and Moeller are serving Chinese-American dishes that could be made with meat, but that “showcase vegetables” instead, according to Lee. The menu includes wood-ear mushroom and yuba hoagies, along with sesame pancakes stuffed with mushroom ragu. The idea isn’t to eliminate meat-eating altogether, he says, but rather to reduce consumption by making meatless dishes that even carnivores love.

The restaurant’s sustainability efforts appear in tandem with other measures — like serving the restaurant’s food on compostable dishware and cooking with olive oil made from recycled olive pits — but that’s just the start of much bigger plans. Lee says he plans to expand Fat Choy with additional locations and hopes to “inspire others to take similar steps” toward sustainability.

“If we’re successful, we can start bullying the meat markets around, giving them some competition,” he says.

Vegan dining was gaining momentum in New York long before the pandemic, but the ways in which the meat industry intersects with other issues — like labor politics and climate change — have been given renewed urgency over the last seven months.

In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order forcing the country’s meat plants to continue operating despite the ongoing pandemic. As the New Republic detailed at the time, the decision came in spite of the ways in which industrial meat factory workers — many of whom are immigrants or other marginalized groups without health care or hazard pay — were dying at an alarming rate.

In recent years, the meat industry has placed more emphasis on humanely raised meat sources, but industrialized facilities still produce close to 99 percent of the country’s meat. A comprehensive climate change package released by the New York Times last year estimated that meat and dairy were the foods that contributed the most to climate change, with livestock accounting for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year.

A cardboard takeout boat filled with sliced cucumbers that have been coated in sesame seeds
Smashed cucumbers with leopard sauce
Aaron Venn/Fat Choy
A cardboard takeout boat of rice rolls topped with cooked-down green vegetables and a flakey yellow garnish
Rice rolls at Fat Choy
Aaron Venn/Fat Choy

It’s estimated that producing beans and lentils emits 20 times fewer greenhouse gases than beef, but that doesn’t mean vegan diets are ethical by default. At the same time that vegan restaurants rise in popularity in New York City, their owners are contending with the same issues faced by other restaurants, including those that serve meat and animal byproducts: mainly, how to create a menu — and a work environment — that’s cruelty-free.

Earlier this year, V Street, a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia came under fire for its treatment of employees during the pandemic. Meanwhile, No Evil Foods, a plant-based meat company based out of North Carolina, was recently outed for union-busting.

Concerns about the treatment of hospitality workers at both of those businesses — and countless others — inspired the opening of Seitan Rising, a “queer and witchy” vegan bakery in Bushwick. The new bakery and cafe is cooperatively owned and operated by its employees, who also founded Seitan’s Helper, a made-from-scratch vegan deli meat brand, and Pisces Rising, a vegan baked goods company.

“We’ve been in situations [working in restaurants] with people not paying us appropriately — or at all — and feeling disposable, which the pandemic only makes more obvious,” says co-owner Christina Verna. Seitan Rising also hopes to eventually eliminate tipping, which has been connected to racial and gender disparities, citing nonprofit One Fair Wage’s influence on the hospitality industry.

Few people are advocating that all restaurants pivot to vegan or vegetarian cooking, yet all of the restaurant owners Eater interviewed for this piece say that they believe lessening meat consumption is paramount. Pivoting to vegan and vegetarian menus has provided them with a chance to attempt to reconfigure their section of the hospitality industry — to prioritize people and the planet.

“The climate is screaming at us to change,” Guevara says.

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