More Clevelanders have no beef with growing vegan options

Roxanne O’Brien Troke has never eaten meat. “I was raised a vegetarian,” she says. “And growing up vegetarian in the ’80s, there weren’t a lot of options. We enjoyed a lot of birthdays at Tommy’s.”

Troke took the next step seven years ago. “Growing up as a vegetarian, it was just something we did,” she says. “I didn't even question it or think about it. But as an adult, especially as I learned more about animal welfare and the dairy industry, I chose to go vegan.”

Troke earned a certificate in plant-based cooking from the Rouxbe School of Cooking. “I want to make good food that happens to be vegan,” she says.

Troke will open Birch Café, 5557 Wilson Mills Road, in Highland Heights, in December with her mother and her fiancé, Neil Beauregard. The vegan restaurant and retail store will feature products supporting the vegan lifestyle: avoiding meat, dairy, and other food derived from animals; clothing made from fur, leather, and wool; animal-based and animal-tested products; and entertainment involving animal abuse.

To some, the lifestyle may seem extreme, but to many, it’s the only way. The term “vegan” has been around since the 1940s. The practice is growing. California and the New York City rank highest, but Cleveland is increasingly becoming vegan-friendly.
In fact, Cleveland ranked seventh in the 2018 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Top 10 Vegan Friendly Cities.

“Vegan is growing in popularity everywhere, but I’ve seen a lot of growth in the past year,” says Troke. “The world is changing. I think there is a lot of interest from consumers, and there are more options out there with more people willing to give it a try.”

Experts say the desire to follow a plant-based lifestyle stems from both ethical and environmental concerns. Jennifer Kaden, founding board member of the Cleveland Vegan Society, points to the annual VegFest—a celebration of all things vegan. Attendance has grown from 3,000 at the first event in 2013 to 13,000 this year, she says.

A healthy choice

Mounting evidence shows tremendous health benefits from plant-based diets, including the work of Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, author of “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.” He is world-renowned for his groundbreaking study of heart disease reversal using a whole foods plant-based diet.

Anya Todd of Cleveland Heights, a registered licensed dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition and sustainable food systems, has been a vegetarian and then a vegan for 30 years, since age 11.

Contrary to popular belief that a vegan diet causes nutrition deficiencies, it has all the nutrients anyone needs to live and thrive, she says.

“There’s no perfect diet, by any means,” she says. “[A vegan diet] is not a cure-all, it’s not going to make you immortal, but the diet is high in antioxidants, fiber, protein, and vitamins C and E. All of these nutrients are very much protective in terms of disease. It’s lower in saturated fat, so the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer is shown to be lower when following a vegan diet.”

Todd warns that like any diet, some planning is required—one cannot just eliminate meat and dairy. Their beneficial elements must be replaced. But stores have plenty of meat and dairy alternatives as well as grains, rice, and beans.

“A lot of people think it’s restrictive,” Todd says. “I feel like I eat such a wider variety than my omnivore counterparts. It’s just about experimentation, really.”

Plenty of options

Many established eateries and cafés in Cleveland specialize in vegan and vegetarian cuisine —such as Tommy’s, in business since 1972, and Cleveland Vegan, founded in 2012. Others offer separate vegan menus, like The Fairmount and Town Hall. New establishments with only vegan cuisine are opening regularly.

Birch Café chain breakfast sandwich look alike made with JUST scrambled eggs and rice paper baconBirch Café

Birch Café’s menu looks mainstream, but everything, even the sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich, is vegan.

Troke uses meat substitutes, five different milks made from nuts, soy, or oats, and “a lot of creative plant-based offerings,” she says. “[Beauregard] is my resident cookie monster. He has been preparing recipes for years now.”

“Vegan is growing in popularity everywhere, but I definitely think we’ve seen a lot of growth in the last year,” she says. “When you see what’s happening with Beyond Meat and Impossible burger, I think there’s a lot of interest from consumers. There are more options out there, and more people are willing to give it a try.”

Troke’s specialty is her crab cakes—made with hearts of palm, celery, onion, peppers, and a touch of Old Bay seasoning—which she says people rave over.

A retail section at Birch will have all locally made vegan products. Pop-up shops also are planned.

Frances Cheng whipping up a sweet dessert at Foodhisattva.Foodhisattva

Another newcomer, Foodhisattva, specializes in vegan Asian fusion from scratch. Husband-and-wife owners Joshua Sias and Frances Cheng opened in June at 2158 South Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights.

Sias earned a master’s degree in philosophy and ethics, which led him to environmental ethics. After learning about animal agriculture’s impact on climate change, he became a vegan. “I changed my lifestyle accordingly,” he says. “And so I started studying vegan cuisine. Most of the vegan culture [originated] in the East, in China and Japan.”

Sias handles the entrees, while Cheng oversees the front of the house, baking, and pastries.

They tried out dishes doing pop-ups around town before opening Foodhisattva. “We try to do things that are unique, not just because they are vegan,” says Sias. “The pop-ups were a good way to test.”

They use as much local produce as they can, Sias says. Signature dishes include Korean barbeque made with marinated seitan (wheat gluten), tofu, miso, and chick’n katsu. They also have familiar items like nachos made with cashew cheese.

“It’s a lot of fun introducing new flavors to people,” says Sias. “We have a different special every week. It keeps things really interesting for the kitchen.”

Nikole tops the pumpkin scones with chocolate ganache drizzle.Baba Yaga’s Greenhouse Café

When Nikole Davis and Erica Chaffin bought Poison Berry Bakery at 12210 Larchmere Blvd. in January, they took the vegan bakery a step further. “We wanted to focus more on savory food,” Chaffin says.

When Baba Yaga’s Greenhouse Café opened in May, they introduced Firebowls—made with choice of chickpea patties, black bean-mushroom burger, or bbq bourbon jackfruit, and tossed with greens, grains and veggies. And they created a community gathering place in the 900-square-foot cafe.

“I think people really like coming here, because the vibe is so cozy and comfortable that people just want to hang out,” says Davis. “Our mission is to provide the Larchmere and surrounding communities with a quirky, cozy, communal setting. Where people can eat fresh, healthy, creative food and learn how to make it themselves at home.”

The menu changes weekly. They focus on gluten-free food, often using lentil flour because it has no cholesterol and 20 grams of protein per serving, Davis says.

They don’t try to copy meat, Davis says. “We do a really good aioli, and we’re finding things that mimic the flavor of dairy,” she says. “We think a good sauce makes everything taste delicious.” And they “make a mean doughnut on Saturdays,” Davis says.

Cooking and baking classes for vegan dishes and sweets are coming. They also source 98% of their produce locally. “Lucky for us, the state of Ohio has a lot of local farms and local coffee roasters,” says Chaffin.

MoBite Products

Rashid Mitcham became a vegan more than 20 years ago, after a friend convinced him he didn’t need meat to live. They compared bowls of chicken wings and grapes. Mitcham’s friend asked what is left after eating (chicken bones, and grape seeds and stems).

Mitcham realized the seeds and stems are sustainable and can eventually feed even more people.

As co-founder and chef of MoBite Products, a vegan catering company and food truck, Mitcham serves award-winning food, like nine varieties of vegan chicken made from soy, pepper steak made from seitan, salads, and nachos made with almond cheese.

Owner of the Root Café Julie Hutchinson.The Root Café

When Julie Hutchison opened The Root Café 10 years ago at 15118 Detroit Ave. in Lakewood, she was unsure about their vegan bakery labels.

“In the climate back then, we were worried we’d scare people away,” she says. “It’s so common and sought after for us now, to have feared people would push it away is just comical to us now.”

Hutchison sees Clevelanders embracing the vegan philosophy. “People are waking up, they realize how their choices affect the environment, how their choices affect animals,” she says. “They are waking up to where their food comes from, and that’s a big part of it.”

The bakery’s most popular item is the vegan cinnamon roll, while the Culture sandwich—made with marinated tempeh in a special recipe, chipotle aioli, spinach, and tomato—is popular for lunch.

While Hutchison buys soy milk for their coffee drinks, they make in-house nut-based milks, and mozzarella, cheddar, and nacho cheeses for their various dishes. Even the bread and salad dressings are vegan. Then they use the fibers from making the milks to make their gluten-free baked goods, she says.

“A lot of the kitchen staff is vegan,” says Hutchison. “We really like to cater to people who are picky eaters.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.