At Slab Sicilian Street Food near Monument Square, more customers are asking for plant-based cheese when they order pizza, and they’re not alone. Many Maine chefs and restaurateurs are reporting a jump in demand for vegan food.

“I was looking at the numbers, and in the past year orders for vegan cheese on pizza have doubled,” Slab baker and manager Chris Bassett told me.

This uptick occurred even though the restaurant’s signature puffy pies – the slabs – can’t be made with vegan cheese unless a customer calls three hours in advance, said Bassett, who himself prefers to eat vegan and keeps a plant-based kitchen at home.

I’ve been writing about vegetarian and vegan food trends for the Press Herald for more than a decade, and interest in vegan food has steadily climbed during that time. But something has changed lately. With only a few exceptions, every Maine chef, restaurateur and purveyor I’ve talked with in the past six months has mentioned a marked increase in demand for vegan food.

That reflects national trends: According to market research firm GlobalData’s “Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017” report, the past three years have seen a 600 percent increase in Americans identifying as vegans. Another trend fueling demand is the number of omnivores cutting down on meat, dairy and eggs.

Together, these two trends are mirrored in the rising tide of plant-based grocery products, vegetarian fast food joints and new vegan cookbooks. (Even America’s Test Kitchen, a culinary publishing company that has long favored American classics like roast chicken and spaghetti and meatballs, published an entire cookbook devoted to vegan recipes last year. In 2015, the group published its first vegetarian book.)

TOFU CHICKEN & BLEEDING BURGERS

Here in Maine, the state’s largest health food store, Whole Foods Market in Portland, has always sold plenty of vegan food, but there, too, sales are on the upswing. “Plant-based diets are more popular this year over last,” said Risa Kantrovitz, manager of the store’s prepared food department.

Last Thanksgiving, Kantrovitz said, the store sold three times the number of vegan holiday meals than it did the previous year. Because of this boost in demand, shoppers can now find more prepared vegan dishes at Whole Foods, such as six daily varieties of tofu, including the popular Chicken Fried Tofu.

Demand for plant-based food is also on the rise at the 62 Hannaford Supermarkets in Maine.

“We have seen tremendous growth in interest in plant-based dairy products recently,” spokesman Eric Blom said. “Most of the growth in the entire dairy category is coming from plant-based products.”

Customers are looking for vegan options in other departments, too, and Blom said Hannaford stores will soon add the Beyond Meat vegan burger to the meat cases. The Beyond Burger, which “bleeds” and has a texture resembling hamburger, is meant to appeal to meat-eaters. A number of grocery stores, including Whole Foods, Shaw’s and Kroger, carry the vegan patties next to the meat-based variety.

Such merchandising was only a dream in two years ago when I spoke with Beyond Meat’s CEO Ethan Brown. At the time, he hoped to get his products placed in the meat cases of “the more progressive supermarkets” within five years.

The pace of the shift toward plant-based eating is happening far faster than he predicted.

The prepared food section at Whole Foods in Portland includes options such as Vegan Sesame Nuggets and Chicken Fried Tofu. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

WHO EATS VEGAN

Hannaford registered dietician Hillary Pride is fielding more questions than ever from customers about plant-based food.

“I have in fact noticed an increase in shoppers looking for vegan options,” said Pride, who works at the Scarborough, Falmouth, Brunswick and Topsham stores. She said some people are “adopting this as a lifestyle” while others are “choosing to integrate Meatless Mondays or part-time vegan habits” into their diet.

The story is the same at the Lois’ Natural Marketplace stores in Scarborough and Portland.

In 1993, when Lois Porta and her husband, Dan, opened the Scarborough store, “people didn’t even know what vegan was,” she said. Now more shoppers are interested in vegan than vegetarian food, Dan Porta said.

That’s in part because the number and quality of vegan products has risen, according to Kelly McGovern, who manages the Scarborough Lois’ Natural store. It’s not only easier to eat vegan, she said, but also a subtle linguistic twist – the phrase “plant-based” – is nudging people toward the diet.

“People relate to ‘plant-based’ more than ‘vegan,’ ” McGovern said. “People get it. ‘I’ve always heard vegetables are good for me’ ” is the connection people make.

At North 43 Bistro in South Portland, more men are ordering vegan dishes than in the past. The vegan Impossible Burger on the lunch menu has been a particular draw, according to chef Stephanie Brown. Like the Beyond Burger, it is made to imitate meat. When North 43 Bistro opened last June, Brown offered vegetarian but not vegan dishes. She soon added vegan entrees in response to customer requests, she said.

“In February, we did a vegan shepherd’s pie served in an oval crock,” Brown said. “It was bubbly and juicy with parsnips and celery root on top. We had a lot of non-vegan people have that. We also have hardcore vegans that come in. We have families that are all vegan.”

One recent customer even left a thank-you note praising the restaurant’s plant-based options.

MEAT-FREE MARKETING

Other local eateries have added plant-based promotions to respond to demand.

At Gorgeous Gelato in the Old Port, owner Donato Giovine and his wife, Mariagrazia Zanardi, began hosting Vegan Fridays three years ago. Every Friday, half of the gelateria’s menu is vegan. The offerings aren’t limited to naturally vegan sorbettos, but include gelatos made with rice milk in flavors like crunchy hazelnut, ginger-lemon, and pistachio.

Across town at Local Sprouts Cooperative in the Arts District, another plant-based promotion is attracting crowds. Vegan Night at Local Sprouts started in March and takes place during every First Friday Art Walk. It features an all-vegan menu made up of Local Sprouts standards alongside specials such as yellow curry and Italian gnocchi.

Local Sprouts worker-owner and Vegan Night organizer Jeremiah Johnson said the initial happening quickly “blew up” online, and the restaurant was “abnormally busy” that evening.

Johnson conceived Vegan Night to help bring local vegans together in a meat-free space (for one night, anyway) since Portland has no all-vegan restaurant.

“Vegan sales in general have increased since the event,” Johnson said. “I think people have been waiting for a spot like this to show up.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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