ST. PETERSBURG — On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, the lot outside Brick Street Farms was bustling with hungry diners.
Throughout the day, people chatted with friends while lining up for everything from hot dogs to fried chicken sandwiches, crab cakes and lobster mac and cheese, Cuban sandwiches and gyros.
At first glance, it looked like any number of Tampa Bay food festivals, but there was one big difference: All of the food was vegan.
The banner turnout at the second installment of VegFEAST surprised even the festival’s organizer, Jenny Howe, who together with her husband runs the popular vegan hot dog cart Nah Dogs.
“I’m always so surprised at how many people come to these events,” said Howe, 39. “I definitely think it’s something that people need to start paying attention to.”
There’s no question about it, Tampa Bay’s vegan scene is booming. Vegan and so-called plant-based options abound and there are now more vegan restaurants in the area than ever before. Even restaurants that don’t market themselves as exclusively vegan have started including more plant-based options on their menu in an attempt to appeal to a broader spectrum of the region’s clientele.
In other words, there’s never been a better time to eat vegan.
Tampa Bay’s vegan evolution
Ten years ago, vegan options at restaurants were scant — limited to Gardenburger patties and tofu scrambles — and places specializing in vegan cuisine were few and far between. Even as recent as a few years ago, options were hard to come by.
That was the impetus for Howe and her husband to launch their vegan hot dog business in 2019. Going out to dinner with friends and relatives at restaurants was always a challenge for the couple, who are both vegan. More often than not, they’d end up cobbling together meals from vegetable sides or ordering what Howe calls “the running joke” of vegan meals: french fries and a side salad.
Johan Everstijn and Roland Strobel opened Cider Press Cafe in downtown St. Petersburg in 2014. Everstijn recalls the confused looks on diners’ faces when they took a look at the menu and realized everything was vegan.
“It used to be that people came in and heard the v-word and they were out the door,” Everstijn said. “You would think we were trying to poison them or something.”
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As the years passed, more vegan restaurants started opening up nearby. Rather than see them as competition, Everstijn says the growing scene has helped solidify the Tampa Bay area as a plant-based dining destination that has attracted both tourists and residents.
An influx in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives has helped fuel the current vegan renaissance. Big name brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have changed the game with alternatives to ground beef that do a remarkably effective job at emulating the real thing. (Early campaigns emphasized the products’ ability to even “bleed” like real meat.) In February, Beyond Meat announced it had locked in a three-year deal with McDonald’s as the preferred supplier in the fast-food chain’s McPlant sandwich, and both Impossible and Beyond Meat products are now frequently featured on local restaurant menus.
The vegan cheese market has also improved dramatically, and now includes an evolving selection of nut-based cheeses that look, taste and even melt like the real thing. The products are gaining shelf space at national grocers and smaller retailers, and the industry — currently valued at just over $1 billion — is expected to grow close to 13 percent over the next six years, according to a report from market research company Grand View Research.
At St. Petersburg’s Love Food Central, an entire board is dedicated to the craft, featuring homemade cheeses ranging from an almond feta to a creamy macadamia nut version. At Ground Foods Cafe in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood, almond ricotta tops flatbread pies, Caesar salads and pastas are tossed with cashew Parmesan and a Margherita pizza comes with cashew mascarpone.
The spike in demand for plant-based products has opened doors for local entrepreneurs. Produce from urban farming operations like Meacham Urban Farm in Tampa and Brick Street Farms in St. Petersburg is frequently featured at vegan restaurants. There are now all-vegan grocery stores, like Black Radish Grocer in Ybor City, and boutique meat-alternative developers like Chris Mince, who runs the small seitan-making company Uncle Mince’s World Famous Seitan.
The most commonly cited reasons for following a vegan diet focus on concerns for animal welfare, the planet and long-term environmental sustainability.
By now, the environmental impacts of the industrial meat industry have been well-documented: Livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, more than the total emissions released from all transport. Though other forms of agriculture — including production, processing and packaging — also produce emissions, experts have said that reducing the amount of meat and dairy consumed can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
For others, the vegan lifestyle is attractive for health reasons. Saturated fats from meat and dairy have been linked to high cholesterol levels and a higher risk of heart disease, and cutting them out can lead to significant health benefits. Daniel Centesimo, who runs the Safety Harbor vegan bistro CORE with Jessica Graham, said he believes switching to a vegan diet may have saved his life. Though he appeared slim and healthy, a visit to a doctor several years ago indicated otherwise.
“He told me that my triglycerides were 10 times the limit,” Centesimo, 47, recalled. “That I was just waiting for a heart attack.”
Though he was initially placed on cholesterol-lowering medications, Centesimo said he was able to get off them and has since lowered his levels dramatically through a vegan diet.
Centesimo says that a large portion of his customers seem interested in making healthier lifestyle choices and described the food at his restaurant as a more gourmet and upscale version of vegan cuisine, with dishes like rice cakes served with a coconut chutney, chive and cabbage dumplings with a spicy Korean gochujang paste and braised barbecue vegetable bao buns.
Being able to create vegan dishes that look and taste familiar to their meatier counterparts can be the key to attracting new customers, many vegan restaurant owners said.
At places like Golden Dinosaurs in Gulfport, 3 Dot Dash in Seminole Heights and Lucy’s in St. Petersburg, comfort food dishes are reimagined using plant-based products, which can help lure some of the more resistant and vegan-averse diners.
“We get an awful lot of traffic from people that are new to eating vegan,” said 3 Dot Dash owner Andrew Seeber, whose restaurant specializes in homey comfort food favorites like fried chick’n sandwiches (made with a homemade alternative of wheat, chickpeas and tofu) and burgers made with Impossible meat.
This way, Seeber said, “they don’t have to take this paradigm shift from eating cheeseburgers to broccoli and rice.”
It might come as a surprise that vegan diners are not the only driving force behind the current trends. Most Tampa Bay vegan restaurant owners said the makeup of their clientele was changing rapidly to include more omnivores and flexitarians — diners who consume a mostly plant-based diet with some dairy and meat scattered in.
And recent studies point to the increasing popularity of vegan and plant-based diets among people who also eat meat occasionally. A set of Gallup polls released last year reported that half of U.S. consumers under the age of 50 had tried a plant-based meat alternative and roughly one in four Americans said they ate less meat in the past year than they had in years before. Since 2018, plant-based food sales have steadily increased: In 2019, U.S. plant-based food retail sales grew by 11 percent and the industry is currently valued at $5 billion.
These national trends are mirrored at the local level, with Tampa Bay restaurant owners and retailers reporting a big uptick in interest in plant-based options. Even restaurants that aren’t vegan have started increasing the number of vegan items on their menus.
Restaurants like St. Petersburg’s Dr. BBQ and Tampa’s Forbici and Pickford’s Counter have all made concerted efforts to highlight vegan dishes that go beyond the one or two lone items usually seen on restaurant menus. At the Ciccio Restaurant Group, plant-based options are among the bestselling dishes at places like Fresh Kitchen, CALI and Better Byrd, even though founder James Lanza suspects the majority of the company’s customers aren’t exclusively vegan.
Restaurant owners and entrepreneurs would be wise to stop thinking of vegan options as a niche product and instead as a valuable tool in attracting a more widespread demographic, Lanza said.
“Our plant-based sales are definitely going up at all our restaurants,” Lanza said. “We feel if we want to expand upon our plant-based exposure, we have to appeal to the people who aren’t 100 percent vegan.”
Two years after launching Nah Dogs, Jenny Howe says she hopes the increased interest in vegan options could be a harbinger of lasting change for the restaurant industry — a sign that plant-based dining in Tampa Bay is here to stay.
“Hopefully businesses in the area will start to get the note,” she said. “It seems so obvious to us that this is the future that we’re moving towards.”