A very vegetarian Thanksgiving: How local businesses adjust to new kinds of customers

Chefs at Glendale’s Loving Hut restaurant cut potatoes and tofu in preparation for vegan meals. (Photo by Lauren Clark/Cronkite News)

In addition to the president, millions of others will pardon turkeys from the imminent threat of Thanksgiving this year.

“(Thanksgiving) was kind of a drag,” said Damon Brasch, owner and head chef of Green New American Vegetarian in Phoenix and Tempe. “The holiday is so based around food. And if you are passionate about what you are eating, you don’t want to be around the typical selection.”

Brasch is one of 7.3 million vegetarians who comprise about 3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Vegetarian Times.

Vegetarians refrain from meat because of environmental, moral and nutritional reasons. But people often ignore this segment as omnivores dive into their Thanksgiving feast each year and grocery store aisles sell big-breasted turkeys and meat-filled stuffing.

But the vegetarian market for Thanksgiving has grown in both popularity and profit – a trend that’s beginning to take off in the Valley.

Meatless alternatives expand in Valley

According to the National Turkey Federation, consumers will buy 46 million turkeys this holiday. And the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates the average Thanksgiving meal costs $50.11.

But alternative options have found a niche.

“There is a definitely a demand,” said Linh La, manager of vegan store the Loving Hut in Tempe and Glendale. “There is a very big demand, and there is a supply that is meeting that.”

La, who opened the doors of the Tempe location on Saturday, said the popularity of the first Glendale spot triggered the eatery by Arizona State University’s campus.

Products like chili burgers, mock bacon and barbeque rolls often entice meat eaters because plant products mimic the taste they know and love.

“Our restaurant is targeted to get at the meat eaters,” La said. “Instead of lecturing them to go vegan, open people up through their stomachs.”

She suggested vegans and vegetarians bring a dish to Thanksgiving gathering and share it with others.

The number of restaurants like La’s is growing quickly, according to the Vegetarian Resource Journal. In 1993, only 55 all-vegan restaurants in the U.S. served meatless meals. That number has since expanded to more than 500 vegan restaurants in the United States.

That doesn’t count national restaurants that provide vegetarian options. (Vegans don’t consume any animal meat or byproducts such as milk, cheese or honey.) Chipotle introduced meatless sofritas earlier this year, while Burger King has added veggie burgers to its menu.

In Arizona, 23 pure vegan and vegetarian restaurants within the Valley have cropped up, according to vegetarian online source Happy Cow. Countless others, like Pita Jungle or Grabbagreen, offer vegetable-only options.

Tofurkey? It’s not the only option

Manipulating vegetables to taste like turkey may not be as difficult as it may seem, said Samantha Gendler senior editor for the Vegetarian Resource Group.

“There are three kinds of popular meat replacements you can use,” Gendler said. “There’s seitan, tofu or tempeh that really have that texture that can mimic that meat taste. Some are so convincing, I’ve had to double check what I was eating to make sure it really was vegetarian.”

Cooks also can make other vegetarian Thanksgiving products, like stuffing, made with hazelnut. Gendler said consumers can find plenty of recipes online for seasoned vegetables or imitation meat.

“We already have cranberry sauce, green bean casseroles, yams. There are so many traditional Thanksgiving foods that are without a meat base,” said Carol Johnson, vegetarian and professor in the nutrition program at Arizona State University. “With the sides, be sure to select leafy greens, legumes or nuts that give vegetarians the protein that they need.”

Green New American Vegetarian provides a new twist for the classic holiday – Thanksliving.

The event (named after the notion that the vegetable-based menu allows turkeys to live) provides a meal of imitation turkey, milk-free gravy, seasoned mashed potatoes and corn, as well as a salad and dessert.

The event, held in the restaurant’s Tempe location on Thanksgiving afternoon, also features DJs, vegan vendors and kid activities.

“It draws people for many reasons,” Brasch said. “We have really killer plant-based foods that are all your favorites from the Thanksgiving table, but also it’s really nice because it’s an alternative for hanging out with your family, if you don’t want to hang out with them.”

Brasch said he expects to draw in 900 attendees. Adult tickets sell for $24.95 while kids cost $8.95. Those prices increase to $28.95 for adults and $12.95 for kids on Thursday.

Grocery stores follow suit

Food chains also have responded to this growing vegetarian and vegan population by stocking other options on the shelves.

Whole Foods has added turkey imitations such as Field Roast, Gardein, Tofurkey, Vegetarian Plus and more during the past five years. Customers can also purchase mushroom gravy and meat-free stuffing.

Janette Rizk, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods for the Southern Pacific region that covers Arizona, said customer demand drives sales of these items.

“The sales and customer requests have grown steadily each year. In fact, we have sold out of our vegetarian holiday entrees the last two years,” she wrote in an email. “Last year, we started offering a vegan meal for four, which was a huge hit among our shoppers.”

Regardless of what is on the table, Gendler said it’s the people around it that make the day special.

“Instead of this idea of ‘these are the vegan dishes’ and ‘these are the non-vegan dishes,’ we can all sit together with family and enjoy great food for the holiday,” she said. “Being around loved ones is what it’s all about.”