Portland may be a small city, but it ranks alongside Chicago, Los Angeles and New York as a hot spot for vegans and vegetarians. Over the past five years, Portland has gained a national reputation as a top city for vegans, reflecting the city’s growing roster of vegetarian restaurants and residents’ easy access to locally grown vegetables and fruits.

Experts predict the COVID-19 pandemic could cause as many as 100,000 restaurants across the nation to shutter. While several restaurants in Portland have already closed permanently as a result of the pandemic, all of the city’s vegan and vegetarian restaurants remain open so far.

The long history of vegetarian eating in Portland and across the state paved the way for today’s vegan food scene. Portland’s large percentage of young people, its growing number of Black residents, its many liberal-leaning citizens, and possibly even its concentration of artists have intensified the demand for vegan food. All these demographic characteristics match those of people most likely to be vegan or vegetarian.

Copper Branch is one of two vegan restaurants that opened in Portland last year (the other is Nura) that help the city rank high on lists of vegan-friendly places. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Last year, the apartment hunting website Rent.com crunched the numbers and put Portland at the No. 6 spot on its list of the Best Cities for Vegans in America. College town Sarasota, Florida, ranked No. 1 on the list, followed by arts enclave Asheville, North Carolina.

“In the top towns, you’re seeing smaller towns with a slightly younger crowd,” said Brian Carberry, senior managing editor of Rent.com. “You’re seeing people who are more organic-minded. You’re seeing thriving agricultural communities with fresh, local options.”

To create its list, Rent.com used national business data to find cities with a population of at least 50,000 people and no fewer than 10 vegan restaurants. To generate the list, these cities were then ranked based on the number of vegan restaurants per 100,000 residents. The cities with the most vegan restaurants, based on pure numbers, according to Rent.com, are Chicago; New York; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, in that order. Yet some smaller cities have more per capita vegan restaurants.

How these rankings may change based on restaurant closings caused by the pandemic in Maine and nationwide remains to be seen.

Portland, Maine, first showed up on a list of top vegan cities in 2015, when “The Daily Meal” added the city to its list of 10 Great American Cities for Vegans. With the exception of Portland and Asheville, most of the cities on that list were major metropolises. The following year, Portland landed on another list: the 12 Best Towns for Vegan Living compiled by “VegNews.” Both these lists appear to have been generated based on the writers’ and editors’ experience, rather than statistics.

Count businesses like the Totally Awesome Vegan Food truck among the reasons Portland does well on many national surveys about vegan-friendly places. Photo courtesy of the Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck

In February, personal finance website WalletHub published a list of the Healthiest Places to Live in the U.S. based on data about health care, food, fitness and green space. The food ranking was based solely on the number of vegetarian restaurants. Portland was ranked No. 23. The report also singled out Portland for having the fewest residents who don’t get enough fruits and vegetables each day.

“The data is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said Jill Gonzalez, an analyst with WalletHub. “Portland residents consume several servings of fruits and vegetables daily, which means that they are easily accessible. At the same time, it means that people are looking out for their health, and are concerned with what they are eating.”

Gonzalez said the city’s food score was also boosted by the fact that Portland “counts some of the most vegetarian and gluten-free restaurants (per capita) in the country.”

The vegan recognition has spilled beyond Portland. For instance, the life insurance company Health IQ, which offers lower rates for vegans, in 2016 ranked states based on how vegan-friendly they are. Maine came in third, after Washington, D.C., and Oregon. Similarly, an interactive graphic from Ipsos Retail Performance measured the vegan interest in all 50 states between 2004 and 2019 based on Google search data. Maine’s search data consistently showed above average interest in vegan eating.

A related list released last year by the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks Maine as the No. 4 best state for animal protection laws.

To find the drivers behind these rankings, we need to consider Maine’s past, which features colonial vegetarians, 1830s health reformers, Seventh-day Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White’s 1863 vegetarian vision, and internationally known vegetarians Helen and Scott Nearing.

Against this backdrop of a rich vegetarian heritage, Portland’s young, diverse, liberal-leaning demographics match the profile of those most likely to avoid meat. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 5 percent of Americans consider themselves vegetarians. Yet, look at certain population subgroups that Portland attracts, and the percentages grow. For instance, more people between the ages of 18 and 34 identify as vegetarians (8 percent) than do those over 50 (2 percent).

The same survey asked participants if they identified as nonwhite or white, and 9 percent of people who identified as nonwhite also considered themselves vegetarians, while just 3 percent of people who have white skin consider themselves vegetarians. The biggest vegetarian dividing line is political ideology. While only 2 percent of conservatives and 3 percent of moderates identify as vegetarians according to Gallup, a whopping 11 percent of liberals consider themselves vegetarians.

Gallup didn’t ask whether respondents were artists, but for years I’ve heard people say that if you want the best vegan food, go to a city known for attracting artists. So I reached out to Pam Ryder, the director of dining services for the Maine College of Art, to ask her whether she had observed a  connection between artists and vegan food. Ryder couldn’t speak to the big picture, but she does know the students and staff at MECA have long demanded and received plenty of vegan and vegetarian food.

“We’ve always had to cover the vegan spectrum,” Ryder said, “where peers in other schools maybe didn’t need to do it to the same degree. As the years have rolled along, the vegan options and choices and demands have grown exponentially at MECA.”

When the school cautiously reopens to freshmen in August, the cafeteria will feature Rustic Roots, a stand-alone station filled with whole grain, bean and vegetable dishes.  Ryder said a plant-based training program, organized by the Humane Society of the United States for a number of local colleges last year,  gave the MECA cafeteria 200 new vegan recipes and helped dining staff understand that vegan dishes should be put “front and center” because they “aren’t just for the vegans and vegetarians, they’re for everyone.”

Ryder agrees that the concentration of visual artists coupled with Portland’s wider community of cultural creatives (musicians, writers,  holistic healthcare providers and others) could explain why vegan dishes sell well on local menus, thus contributing to Portland’s vegan reputation. “Creatives in general try creative things,” Ryder said.

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

[email protected]

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