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When the vegetarian "butcher shop" YamChops started offering customers burgers made from black beans and lox crafted from carrots, the owners were hoping their plant-based fare would find favour among their anticipated clientele, the vegetarians and vegans who came into the store in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood.
They say it has. But in an evolving food world where health-conscious consumers are increasingly more discerning — some would say picky — about how their food is produced and exactly what's in it, YamChops has also found an unexpected following.
"About half of our customers are not vegetarians and vegans at all," says Jess Abramson, a partner in the College Street business that recently opened in a former gelateria. "We were surprised."
Enter the "flexitarians," who Abramson says "are basically wondering what a vegetarian butcher is, and coming in because they're looking to reduce their meat consumption."
It would be hard to say with any certainty how many people are flexitarians — or flexible vegetarians, a term that has been added to the dictionary and has been estimated by at least one U.S. source to represent up to 40 per cent of the American population.
"It's always difficult to ask consumers whether or not they are vegetarian because people actually see vegetarianism in different ways," says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario.
Not on weekends
Flexitarians, for example, he says, may favour a vegetarian diet for specific periods of time, such as weekends when they might not eat meat.
And sometimes people who are vegetarian — estimated by various sources to be about four to 10 per cent of the population — abandon the concept and go back to eating meat for all sorts of reasons, he says. (Maybe their iron levels were low, for example.)
But restaurants and food service outlets are becoming more accommodating, says Charlebois.
"It's becoming easier and easier to actually be a vegan or a vegetarian in our society."
At the Toronto Vegetarian Association, executive director David Alexander says there are now more than 100 vegetarian restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area.
"It's grown quite dramatically. When I talk to people who have been vegetarian since the '80s, at that time there were just one or two."
Alexander chalks the increase up to a couple of things, among them: "We've seen more interest in healthy eating, more interest in sustainable foods."
Compassion for cows
Indeed, a study published this week that garnered much discussion among CBCNews.ca readers suggested that the environmental costs of producing beef are high.
"We are seeing a lot of interest and compassion for animals as well," says Alexander.
While such motivating factors may inspire specific food choices, they won't matter much if there aren't appealing food alternatives.
In the case of vegetarian food, it hasn't always had a good rap — especially for those who remember eating tasteless tofu floating in grease at a university dining hall in the not-that-distant past.
Such memories are common, says YamChops' Abramson.
"That's been part of our fun. We get to take stuff like that that is so understood as bland or flavourless or mushy … and reinvent it in a way that people love."
YamChops' prime example of that might be its tuna-less tuna, which is really mashed chickpeas seasoned with vegan mayonnaise, pickles, capers, dill and a bit of seaweed.
"We just can't keep it in stock," says Abramson.
Food science has also contributed to the potential of a wider vegetarian palate.
"There's a lot of excellent base proteins that are coming out now, and a lot of them are in the meat analogue or meat imitation realm," says Abramson.
"We have everything up to and including vegan calamari and scallops and pizza on our shelves. Many of those ingredients become the basis for our butcher shop items…. If those didn't exist, we probably wouldn't exist."
But some vegetarian fare has had a much longer following.
In Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood, the Naam restaurant, which describes itself as the city's "oldest natural food restaurant," has been serving meals for more than three decades.
"The best eating is the simplest eating," says general manager Glen Delukas.
"That's the thing here. We've never really gone to the zone of any food being too complicated. The base of everything here [is] basically rice, beans, organic pressed tofu."
That's not so say Naam has been oblivious to trends. Its menu revisions try to offer more options while preserving favourites like the dragon bowls that keep bringing diners back.
"There's a lot of demanding people out there that want what they want, and I feel we're able to accommodate them each time something happens," says Delukas, "except for the quinoa thing," where Naam didn't follow the trend.
"We're busy every day," says Delukas. "We kind of scratch our heads. There's so many restaurants in Vancouver, yet we still have lineups every night here."
Money to be made
Changing options at the grocery store also favour those who might wish to opt for something other than meat — at least sometimes.
"The PC brand has a number of really good alternatives … like vegetarian chicken, vegetarian ground beef, things that people can take and just substitute right into the meals they're used to cooking," says Alexander, of the Toronto Vegetarian Association.
"Those didn't exist 10 years ago when I became vegetarian and now they're in pretty much in every grocery store so that would be one example, and I don't think Loblaws would be doing it if there wasn't money to be made."
Loblaw Companies Ltd. doesn't divulge sales information as that information is competitively sensitive, a spokeswoman said in an email.
But retail analyst Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at the J.C. Williams Group, says there are a lot of consumers who are interested in vegetarian food, even if they aren't vegetarian.
"There's a lot of health concerns, and so eating less meat, eating lighter meat, is definitely part of that whole trend."
Groceries are a low-margin business, she says, and stores will try to experiment with trends to ensure they can get full margin, because once something takes off, it can become quite price-competitive.
Atkinson doesn't see interest in vegetarian fare as a passing phase.
"I think that the industry has grown up to be very sophisticated, so if you go to a place like Whole Foods, and you see what they have as a vegetarian offering, it certainly would stack up well with pretty much all grocery items, maybe even better."
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