Is veganism ready to hit the mainstream in Toronto?

Vegan protesters, social media stars and restaurateurs are helping Toronto’s vegan scene grow, despite being at odds with one another


On a Saturday evening in late June, around 20 protesters hoisting signs with slogans like “Peace Begins On Your Plate” and “Don’t Buy While They Die!” are staked outside Antler Kitchen & Bar. A few protesters bang on bongos, others chant, “There’s no excuse for animal abuse,” and hand out animal-rights leaflets to passersby. 

Since last fall, members of the group Grassroots Anti-Speciesism Shift (GRASS) have staged protests outside the Dundas West restaurant every week. Antler’s chalkboard sidewalk sign had read “Venison is the new kale,” which caught the attention of GRASS founder and local resident Marni Ugar

Ugar says the goal of the protest is to dispel the myth of “humane meat” – Antler’s menu focuses on Ontario game meats – and to force Antler to put a pro-animal-rights sign in its window. 

Meanwhile in nearby Parkdale, another group is taking a different approach, spreading the gospel via vegan Big Macs, chickpea steaks and tempeh fish and chips. 

Later this month, the food and restaurant company the 5700 Inc. will open three new eateries in “Vegandale,” the nickname they’ve given to the block between Dufferin and Brock on Queen West. They’ll join the 5700’s  three other businesses in Vegandale: the junk food emporium Doomie’s, old-school diner Mythology and clothing and gift shop the Imperative

Veganism has ascended into an aspirational lifestyle. There are dating websites devoted to non-meat eaters, vegan cruises and plant-based butchers, bakeries and specialty grocery stores. A decade ago vegan restaurants were few and far between, but now plant-based restaurants seem to be popping up every week.

The GRASS protests and Vegandale represent two takes on veganism in Toronto, both of which have received equal parts praise, media attention and backlash. As a collective, vegans are stronger than ever, a diverse group of animal rights activists, social media celebrities and buzzy restaurateurs – even if they’re sometimes at odds with one another.

PLANTING THE SEEDS

When Ruth Tal, the founder of Fresh restaurants, went vegan in 1990, she says it felt like she was taking a revolutionary stance. 

“While it wasn’t left of centre to want to be healthy and help the planet, the idea of doing it through your food choices felt really radical back then,” says Tal. 

She opened Juice for Life on Queen West that year and the juice bar slowly built a loyal customer base, eventually serving vegan food. In 1999, she rebranded Juice for Life as Fresh. 

Tal opened Fresh with an “evangelistic zeal” but wanted the restaurant to feel inclusive and attract a mainstream customer who wasn’t necessarily vegetarian or vegan. 

“I have deep principles, but I don’t shout them off the rooftops because I want everyone to feel comfortable enough to give it a try,” says Tal in between bites of Buffalo cauliflower wings and sips of green juice on the patio of the Queen and Crawford location. “The subversive approach I took was appealing to a more mainstream customer.” 

Her strategy worked. Fresh now has five locations, including a new spot near St. Lawrence Market opening next week. Fresh’s biggest location yet, it features an expanded menu, plant-based cocktails and vegan wine. (Most bottles at the LCBO aren’t vegan, since the filtration process usually involves animal products like bone marrow.) Tal has even hired a vegan sommelier, a job that barely existed five years ago.

“The real signal that the plant-based movement has gone fully mainstream is when you can order a fine bottle of wine at a vegan restaurant,” laughs Tal. 

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Samuel Engelking

Along with sharing vegan recipes on her Instagram and YouTube accounts, Lauren Toyota released her first vegan cookbook earlier this year.

THE VEGAN RE-BRAND 

In Canada, millennials are the demographic most likely to be vegan. A recent poll by Dalhousie University found that Canadians under 35 are three times more likely to self-identify as vegan. While only 7.1 per cent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarian and only 2.3 per cent vegans, Sylvain Charlebois, the Dalhousie professor who oversaw the poll, says the findings indicate that plant-based diets will be more common in the future, since millennials are more likely to raise their children vegan. Earlier this spring, research firm GlobalData found that young people are more likely to go vegan because of animal welfare issues and the environment. 

Lauren Toyota has seen first-hand how millennials and social media are changing the perception of veganism. A former MuchMusic VJ, Toyota went vegan in 2010 and launched her Instagram account @hotforfood in 2012, where she shares easy vegan recipes, like nacho cheese and “pulled pork” sandwiches. At that time, she says, vegans were either portrayed as “crunchy granola super-hippies” or “extreme activists screaming about slaughterhouses all the time.” Nowadays, the perception of veganism has shifted into a lifestyle that’s trendy and desirable. 

“One of my main goals is to change the misconceptions of what a vegan looks like,” says Toyota. “Social media is how the younger generation is getting turned onto veganism.” 

Indeed, if you search #plantbased or #vegansofinstagram, you’ll find shots of perfectly styled smoothie bowls and salads, and young women posing in bikinis at the beach or beside produce stands at farmers’ markets. 

Since starting her Instagram account (310,000 followers), Toyota has launched a YouTube channel (419,000 subscribers) and published the cookbook Vegan Comfort Classics. The majority of her followers on social media are women aged 18 to 35.

She’s the epitome of aspirational vegan lifestyle, but she doesn’t believe social media stardom is incompatible with activism. 

“I had to get over my narrow-minded idea of what an activist is – it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out protesting on the streets or throwing paint on people wearing fur,” says Toyota. “I’m an activist. I’m just making it food-forward.” 

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Samuel Engelking

With his company the 5700, Hellenic Vincent De Paul will open three new vegan restaurants later this month in Parkdale.

PLANT-POWERED GENTRIFICATION

Take a stroll along Queen West in the newly minted Vegandale and you’ll be bombarded by bright marquee signs spouting vegan propaganda like “Baby steps are for babies. Be an adult. Be vegan” or “Your grandkids will ask why you ever ate animals.” 

While some trendy vegan restaurants like Hello 123 or Planta describe themselves as the more palatable “plant-based,” the 5700 is unabashedly in-your-face with its values. (That ethos applies to its office, too: employees are banned from bringing non-vegan lunches or wearing leather, suede and other animal products.) 

Later this month, the 5700 plans to expand its empire with a new Danish bakery and a pizza joint. A new brewery with Michael Duggan (co-founder of Mill Street), ice cream parlour and Doomie’s will move into the former location of Duggan’s at Brock and Queen, and the old Doomie’s digs across the street will become a pop-up restaurant for visiting vegan chefs. When everything’s completed, there will be six vegan storefronts all within that Vegandale block between Dufferin and Brock. 

Despite excitement from vegans, many Parkdale residents oppose the rebranding, calling it gentrifying and insulting to neighbourhood diversity. 

Hellenic Vincent De Paul, the mastermind behind Vegandale, who’s been vegan for nearly a decade, says the cries of gentrification are unwarranted since they didn’t kick out active businesses. The 5700 is a small business with lofty visions. 

“When you look at Toronto, we have Little Italy, the Gay Village, Chinatown, Greektown. I don’t think it’s a stretch to have a vegan neighbourhood,” says Vincent De Paul.  

The difference is that immigrants and marginalized communities built those neighbourhoods over decades. Vegandale’s expansion is more akin to the Drake Hotel’s takeover along Queen West, and even that happened over many years. And Parkdale is already home to a plethora of vegan-friendly Tibetan, Indian and Caribbean restaurants. 

But for Vincent De Paul, Vegandale will add to Parkdale’s diversity, not detract from it. “Are we gentrifying Parkdale by attracting people to the neighbourhood who don’t live here? Yes. Are we gentrifying Parkdale by exclusively bringing in white people from a higher tax bracket? No.”

Despite early criticism, Vegandale is already a success, and Vincent De Paul expects some 20,000 people to attend his Vegandale Food Drink Festival this August, which is up from 5,000 visitors in its first year, as Vegan Food and Drink Festival in 2015. Plus, on any given weekend there’s a 45-minute wait for a table at Doomie’s. 

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Michael Watier

Since last winter, animal rights activists have protested outside of Antler Kitchen & Bar after the restaurant displayed a sidewalk sign that read “Venison is the new kale.”

CLASHING ACTIVISM

Although the perception of veganism is changing, old stereotypes of vegans as preachy and militant still persist. On vegan blogs (and in interviews for this story), the number of animals slaughtered in factory-farming has been compared to the Holocaust, while the word “pork” was labelled as offensive as using the N-word. Even though I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years, I was lectured at a recent Antler demonstration about eating eggs and dairy. 

In many ways, the protesters at Antler represent an image of old-school vegan activism that people like Toyota are trying to get away from. Both Vincent De Paul and Toyota say they don’t agree with GRASS’s tactics. Toyota prefers a more inclusive method that doesn’t intimidate or scare off the vegan-curious, and Vincent De Paul gets heated when speaking about how the Antler protests are counterproductive.

“Rather than focusing on protesting establishments, we as vegans need to dedicate our time to educate others on veganism. We need a clear message that promotes veganism as a moral imperative,” says Vincent De Paul. “Even if the protestors somehow got Antler to shut down, it wouldn’t make a difference, since the public will continue to dine at other non-vegan restaurants.”

Ugar understands that her way of raising awareness and educating the public on speciesism might not resonate with everyone, but she believes it’s necessary to further the cause. While opening vegan restaurants and sharing recipes on Instagram is helpful, it’s simply insufficient. 

“I was a vegetarian for 20-something years and it was only through animal rights groups that I learned the atrocities of the dairy industry,” says Ugar during one of the protests. “How can it be enough to say, ‘Here’s a vegan cupcake, I hope you like it and I hope it converts you to go vegan?’” 

Animal rights activist Anita Krajnc agrees with Ugar. She’s the founder of Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots group that holds multiple vigils each week for pigs, chickens and cows on their way to slaughterhouses. She believes that in order for the animal rights movement to be as successful as social justice causes like the civil rights and women’s movements, there needs to be the mobilization of millions of people on the ground. 

“I want to see a world where we don’t have discrimination and we promote equality. To get there, you need grassroots movements,” says Krajnc. “There are more vegans now and more vegan products at the supermarkets, but only a small percentage of vegans are activists. The Toronto Pig Save’s mission is to turn people into vegan activists.” 

That said, Krajnc believes non-traditional activists, like social media influencers or celebrities, can bring added cachet to the animal rights cause. Popular American Instagrammer @-highcarbhannah (née Hannah Howlett), who became vegan to lose weight, went to a Toronto pig vigil, posted images on Instagram and raised over $5,600 for the group through donations from her followers. 

THE FUTURE OF VEGANISM

Earlier this spring, Beyoncé announced via an Instagram post of avocado toast that she was temporarily going vegan in preparation for her Coachella performance, inviting her 115 million followers to join her. Nina Gheihman, a Toronto graduate student studying the social aspects of veganism at Harvard University, says veganism will continue to grow because of these kind of endorsements from celebrities. 

“Beyoncé can reach the Midwest mom with two kids, someone who might not ever consider being vegan. But now that Beyoncé’s doing it, it has a different appeal,” says Gheihman. 

Vegan foodies and activists might not always agree with one another (case in point: many animal rights activists were upset Beyoncé was still wearing leather during her vegan stint), but as Gheihman points out, in order for veganism to become more widespread, it’ll take the combined efforts from entrepreneurs like Vincent De Paul, social media influencers like Toyota, celebrities and grassroots organizers. 

“You can’t influence everybody with the same message,” says Gheihman. “Lots of people don’t want to be told what to eat or what they’re doing is wrong, so they’re much more likely to be influenced by vegan banana ice cream than photos from a pig vigil.”

Once a fringe movement rooted in animal rights activism and environmental issues, veganism has now entered the mainstream. 

“Five years ago, people might have actively tried to hide their veganism,” say Gheihman. “But I think today, it’s not uncool to say that I care about animals being killed.”

samanthae@nowtoronto.com | @SamEdwardsTO

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