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Plant-based Restaurants Sprout Up in Twin Cities

J. Selby’s owner Matt Clayton aims to attract not just vegans at his plant-based restaurant in St. Paul.

Matt Clayton used to watch people line up outside The Neighborhood Café on weekends, patiently waiting for their turn to dig into one of the diner’s breakfast specialties, perhaps a Snelling Scrambler, extra cheesy omelet or buttery pancakes.

The café on Selby Avenue in St. Paul is just a mile-and-a-half down the street from Clayton’s own eatery, J. Selby’s, which the surgeon-turned-restaurateur opened in April after converting a storefront.

“Brunch has been crazy popular, but I knew it would be,” said Clayton as he recalled the crowds he used to watch gather. “People in this area love their brunch and it’s just become more popular for restaurants in general.”

The difference at J. Selby’s, however, is there are no eggs, no cheese, no butter—at least not in the traditional sense. That’s because J. Selby’s is a vegan restaurant—Clayton prefers “plant-based” as a more inclusive term, but more on that later—with no red meat, poultry, pork, seafood, dairy, eggs or honey on its menu.

“No one does a really good vegan brunch,” Clayton continued, “and now we do.”

Instead of scrambled eggs it’s scrambled tofu in J. Selby’s Mediterranean scramble, and there’s cheeze with a “z” and tempeh bacon on the breakfast sandwich. The goal, Clayton said, is to still give diners that more indulgent brunch experience, but one that just happens to be vegan.

J. Selby’s Mediterranean scramble uses tofu instead of eggs.

J. Selby’s, which also serves lunch and dinner daily, is among a handful of vegan food businesses to launch in the Twin Cities following the January 2016 opening of the Herbivorous Butcher in northeast Minneapolis by sibling duo Aubry and Kale Walch. The mock meat and cheese shop operates as a retail store and also supplies dozens of restaurants such as Pizza Nea, French Meadow Bakery, Red Stag Supperclub and now J. Selby’s with vegan products.

Clayton, a runner who converted to a plant-based diet more than four years ago for athletic performance reasons, said he’s long felt there was a void in the restaurant space for this type of concept but it wasn't until he ate at Green New American Vegetarian restaurant in Phoenix that he saw what vegan dining could be. He contacted chef-owner Damon Brasch to talk about collaborating on a Twin Cities project and later got Brasch’s blessing to borrow some of the concept and menu ideas. Clayton brought in chef Rick Berdahl, a longtime vegetarian and former owner of Aromas Pizza in St. Paul, to consult on the project and serve as executive chef.

Confident that there was a strong enough market to support a completely vegan restaurant—J. Selby’s actually closed temporarily following its initial opening to deal with its own lines out the door and work to better manage the high demand—but aware that vegans are still a relatively small subset of overall consumers, Clayton sought to position his restaurant as one with a familiar, approachable menu that just happens to be plant-based.

“From a marketing standpoint, it just doesn’t make sense to only appeal to vegans,” he explained. The market for dairy and meat alternatives remains niche, noted The NPD Group in its “Eating Patterns in America” study, with only 1 percent of the population claiming to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, and 8 percent, or about 27 million Americans, identifying as flexible vegetarians.

There was some pushback from some in the vegan community following Clayton’s decision to forgo the term in favor of plant-based, but Clayton said that’s exactly why he did it.

“There’s a militant, activist component to that term that turns people off,” he said, noting animal welfare and environmental concerns are just two reasons why some people choose a vegan diet. “I like plant-based … why ever you choose to do it, we’ll offer you something to eat here.”

Jeff Therkelsen and Kirstin Wiegmann believe the demand for vegan dining options will only grow as they look for a new home for their Reverie restaurant.

Kirstin Wiegmann and partner Jeff Therkelsen also aimed for inclusivity at their Reverie Café + Bar. The pair took over The Nicollet coffee shop in the Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis in September 2015 and in 2016 transitioned to their “plant-based, big taste” Reverie concept. (They’re currently looking for a new location after being unable to agree on lease terms with the building landlord.)

“Create plant-based food that’s really good and just happens to be plant-based,” is what Reverie is all about, said Wiegmann.

“Often when people think of this type of food, it’s just been a pile of raw kale,” she continued, but that’s not the case. 

Therkelsen, who’s been cooking exclusively vegetarian and vegan for about 16 years, six of them at Minneapolis raw vegan restaurant Ecopolitan before it closed, creates breakfast items such as polenta rancheros, seared polenta cakes atop spiced pinto beans with lime leaf “sour cream,” salsa verde, guacamole and toasted pepitas. Or the popular Berbere BBQ, house-made mock duck in tangy barbecue sauce served on a Vietnamese French baguette.

“We’ve seen there’s a huge market” for plant-based dining and it’s one that’s only going to grow, said Wiegmann as she mentioned the early success of start-ups such as St. Paul home-based bakery Vegan East and Karrie Vrabel’s vegan Totally Baked Donuts. “It’s not food just for vegans, it’s just great food.”

Sourcing the ingredients to make that food, however, isn’t without its challenges—and costs.

“It is amazingly difficult to get foodservice sizing on these certain things,” said Clayton of items such as soy chorizo, nutritional yeast, and vegan cream cheese. And the organic, vegan peanut butter cups J. Selby’s uses in its popular SoyClone blizzard? “They only sell them in two-cup packages and so we’re unwrapping hundreds of them by hand. Food costs are so variable, you just don’t know what your supply is going to be.”

Like the rest of its menu, Reverie’s baked goods are all plant-based.

The availability of that supply will only increase with demand, said Paula Savanti, senior analyst consumer foods, at food and agribusiness research firm Rabobank.

“There is going to be two constraints; one is price. These products are anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more expensive,” said Savanti. “But also actually supply of the raw materials, the sourcing. One of the things that we see which is fascinating is that there is a mismatch between demand versus how fast land or production or farms is converting. Only 1 percent of the land in the US is organic, so that means for a lot of things … we’re importing it.”

Despite some of the sourcing uncertainty, Clayton, like Wiegmann, only sees growth ahead from a consumer standpoint. He pointed out J. Selby’s is serving 700-800 customers each day, double his original projections, and they’ve already been approached by Amazon, GrubHub and BiteSquad about offering delivery.

“If we want more vegan dining options we have to show that there’s a demand,” he said. “I think we’re in the process of proving that.” 

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