Vegan, vegetarian restaurants emphasize flavor over labels

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Columbus is filled with plant-based meal options that cater to meat lovers and herbivores alike. These restaurants offer flavorful vegetable dishes and desserts, many without animal-derived ingredients.

“There’s a lot of stigma with the labels associated with vegetable-forward restaurants and diets,” Little Eater owner Kara Mangini said. Little Eater moved into North Market in 2015 and opened its Clintonville location, 4215 N High St., in 2017. 

There’s a trend among “plant-forward” restaurants, too; they don’t want to alienate potential customers with labels such as “vegan” or “vegetarian.” Instead, they market themselves based on the colorful array of vegetables used in dishes, eliminating the notion that plant-based eating must be limited. 

When Little Eater opened in 2012, there weren’t many plant-forward concept restaurants in Columbus.

“It’s really exciting that these options are growing. We should be highlighting these beautiful ingredients,” Mangini said.

Mangini also authored a cookbook, “The Vegetable Butcher,” to show how versatile plant-based meals can be. At Little Eater, she’s trying to bring “everyone to the table around vegetables” with a focus on “flavor and abundance.” All ingredients are sourced from local farmers. Since the restaurant uses seasonal ingredients, menu options change with the seasons.

And even if someone doesn’t like vegetables, Mangini will still try to serve someone a dish they’ll like, she said.

Also located in North Market, Destination Donuts bakes 4 vegan options every morning, rotating between treats including cinnamon rolls and raspberry hibiscus doughnuts. They also make vegan chocolate icing, using soy milk rather than dairy.

But unlike some restaurants, they choose to not label their doughnuts as vegan, although the information is found on their website. Destination Donuts also doesn’t want to lose potential patrons by using the term “vegan.”

Lori Trembley, a baker at Destination Donuts, watches vegan options fly off the shelves before any other doughnuts, she said.

“We don’t have the vegan labeled, because it scares people off,” Trembley said.

Jennie Scheinbach, founder of a worker-owned co-op bakery, decided to remove “vegan” from the Pattycake Bakery name to ensure more people would be introduced to vegan baking.

“When I first opened, it was a choice I made politically to put ‘vegan’ in the name,” Scheinbach said. “But people wouldn’t even try it.”

People would come into the bakery, at 3009 N High St., with their vegan or vegetarian friends and get nothing, she said. But once the bakery dropped the “vegan” label, people from all dietary persuasions started trying their treats.

Now, most customers don’t even realize the bakery is completely vegan.

“If you can’t get anyone to try it, no one is going to change their mind,” Scheinbach said.

Scheinbach doesn’t want customers to say, “This cake is good for being vegan.” She just wants to sell people delicious cakes. A good cake is a good cake, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s vegan or not, she said.

According to Scheinbach, the stigma around vegan food has decreased since Pattycake Bakery opened in 2003. Back then, vegan food had a reputation for being “granola cardboard.” 

Scheinbach and other restaurateurs hope to change past perceptions of plant-based food—one animal-product substitute at a time.  

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