vegan in cleveland?! how a meat-free movement is taking root in a meat-and-potato town

Cleveland is quietly transforming from a meat-and-potatoes to a beets-and-tomatoes kind of town -- at least around the edges.
The vegan movement has taken hold in Greater Cleveland, and make no mistake, its numbers are growing, as are its disciple's options for food, fun and education. As is often the case, the culture has advanced itself from the inside out through grass-roots efforts, accomplished locally by the Cleveland Vegan Society (tCVS). The group was formed last year when eight vegans decided the city needed a vegan-centric voice.
"We formed for the specific purpose of putting on a VegFest," says tCVS president Amy Wagar Cinch.
The event, to be held this summer, will be a day-long educational event that celebrates the vegan lifestyle, with special focus on animal ethics, food and the environment. To realize the plan, though, the group needed to raise money. To that end, they organized VegGala, a fundraiser that was held this past October.
The response was jaw dropping.
"We had to cut off attendance at 400," recalls Wagar Cinch. "We didn't anticipate that. It was amazing." The sold-out event, which boasted 27 participating restaurants, was held at Brennan's Party Center. "We ended up making $12,000," enough to schedule this summer's VegFest as hoped.
Vegan and raw foodist Anna Harouvis, who has been part of the Cleveland food scene since the mid 1990s, was one of the local chefs who made VegGala a success.
"I was totally shocked that it wasn't just a bunch of my Trekkie friends that usually hang out in their moms' basement," jokes Harouvis. "These were normal, professional, amazing people that were there. There were no secret handshakes. I was so excited. Whenever you find your people, you're just so happy."
A community learns to accommodate
Judging by the uptick in local eateries that cater to their ilk, Cleveland vegans have plenty to be happy about. Flaming Ice Cube, Root Café, and Harouvis's own Good To Go Café evidence the inroads vegans are making into the local food scene, as do more mainstream venues such as Orale! and Pura Vida, which offer vegan options.
And more options are there for the taking -- if you just ask. Medeana Hobar, seasoned vegan, tCVS board member and marketing outreach specialist at Nature's Bin, urges newbie vegans to request dishes and preparations that accommodate their diet. When traveling with her three kids, Hobar often packs vegan cheese and "tofurkey" and asks sandwich and pizza shops to use those ingredients to tailor their menus accordingly.
"I've been across this country," says Hobar. "I've never had anybody tell me no." Hobar ran the Web of Life natural foods market for ten years and is a frequent guest on Fox 8's "New Day Cleveland," where she showcases a natural-foods lifestyle.
It isn't just the lunch spots and cafes, adds Harouvis, who says she has little trouble scoring vegan options in Cleveland's more upscale eateries.
"Call places -- you'd be surprised," she says, noting that carnivore bastions such as the Greenhouse Tavern, Fahrenheit and Dante all offer top-shelf raw and vegan food. "A lot of great, classically trained chefs can do it."
But you have to give them the chance. "You have to leave your house," she adds. "Don't just stay at home and complain that there's nowhere to go while these restaurants are trying to make it and you're not going out and supporting them."
The good news for vegans is that change is happening. Wagar Cinch, for one, sees progress. "Ten years ago, you would not see the word vegan on a menu in Cleveland very often," she says. "Now, you can go just about anywhere and any server is going to know what you mean when you say vegan. We are extremely vegan-friendly here in Cleveland."
Health, ethics, and good will towards man
As for individual motivations behind taking the vegan plunge, many cite health and ethics at the top of the list. Harouvis, for instance, used to suffer an array of ailments. Her life was inundated with prescription drugs, medical tests and digestive troubles. Then she went raw, gluten-free and vegan.
"I feel amazing," reports Harouvis, who now is med-free. "It's actually a very simple way to eat and live.
"This food fuels my body," adds Hobar. "I feel more energetic. The food we put in our body also affects the way we feel. You have a brighter outlook. There are so many people taking antidepressants in this country. I think they're depressed about many things. I think one of the key things is the food they are putting into their body."
While Wagar Cinch also recognizes the health benefits of veganism, it's the ethical component of animal rights that looms large for her.
"The best part about being a vegan is knowing that I am not complicit in this immense cruelty that is happening every waking second of the day," she says of industrial-scale meat, dairy and poultry operations. "I'm not paying into that system."
Harouvis, whose menu at Good to Go Café includes meat dishes, urges mutual respect.
"I wish people would have a little more acceptance and quit classifying everybody," she says. "Meat people are not horrible people and vegans are not all a bunch of nuts." But Harouvis does implore diners to keep an open mind. "Try it before you say It's gross, or It's hippie food, or I don't like it. Just try it. I won't even tell you it's raw and you'll think it's amazing."
Growing faster than Jack's beanstalk
In addition to the overwhelming response to last October's VegGala, tCVS partnered with the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance to host a free Vegan 101 Workshop at Mustard Seed Market. All 150 registration slots were filled a week before the event.
By all accounts the Cleveland Vegan Society's first year has been a success; but much remains on the agenda. Tasks for the road ahead include expanding their list of "VegPledge-approved" establishments, scheduling more events, and fighting for more vegan options in local restaurants and groceries. The group officially received its nonprofit status last month and plans to open for general membership this spring. Judging by the emails tCVS fields daily, they can expect a good reception.
"We can't even believe our eyes," says Wagar Cinch. "It's so encouraging every time we get another email from someone saying, 'I want to go vegan, point me in the right direction.'" They ask about social events, volunteer opportunities and educational programs, she says.
"It is great being vegan in Cleveland because this is such a growing movement," she adds. "It is so positive right now. I couldn’t be happier. I'm very proud of our vegan scene."

Photo Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.
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