Veganism takes root in Richmond, VCU

Ed Edge’s RVA Vegan sells vegan cupcakes and tacos for dividers. His bright pink bus and food carts can be seen around campus and downtown. Photo by Helen Stoddard.

Shelby Mertens
Spectrum Editor

Strange Matter, Green Leaf, Harrison Street Café, 821 Café, Panda Garden and Sticky Rice are just a few of the vegan-friendly restaurants located in the greater Richmond area. From vegan Buffalo wings to vegan cupcakes, the old days of eating kidney beans and salads are gone.

Unlike vegetarians who only abstain from consuming meat, vegans also do not consume dairy products. Once a tough diet to follow, veganism is becoming an easier, and more popular diet to maintain because of the growing availability of vegan options in the city.

“Richmond has a strong and growing vegan culture,” said Kenneth Montville, college campaigns assistant for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “While we don’t have any specific statistics on the number of vegans, Richmond is certainly friendly to the ones who reside within the city limits.”

There are several reasons why one might choose to avoid meat products. Some do it because of personal health concerns, while others do it for animal rights. Others go meatless for environmental reasons; the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has stated the meat industry is the one of the biggest contributors to global climate change.

But for vegans, it’s not just about meat. Vegans believe the dairy industry has just as much a hand in the cruelty to animals, the effect on the environment and the same health drawbacks as meat.

Last spring, PETA released their annual list of the top 10 most vegan-friendly cities in America. Richmond was ranked 10th on the list. Austin, Texas earned the top spot.

Richmond has several meat-free restaurants that offer vegan options, a vegan-friendly music venue and a vegan bakery, said Montville. In addition to the restaurants, he said Richmond’s annual Vegetarian Festival also played a role in the ranking.

Students at VCU can also expect to find several vegan options available. Market 810 at Shafer Court Dining Center allows students to customize their meals, which Tamara Highsmith, manager of sales and services for VCU Dining Services, said can be made with a request to the chef.

Eateries like Nao and Zen and Croutons offer vegan options across the board. However, not all of the food locations on campus have vegan options. Subway, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell go by the brand’s standards, Highsmith said, and may not have vegan options. However, Subway’s white bread is vegan and so are Raising Cane’s french fries, she added.

VCU Dining Services is working to expand the vegan offerings beyond single item dishes, said Kristan Cole, marketing, trademarks and licensing manager for the Department of Business Services.

“It’s popular enough that we offer a wide range of vegan options, so I think it would be a tell-tale sign that it’s not popular anymore, if the food wasn’t getting eaten and we had to decrease our offerings because we were wasting food,” Cole said. “It’s very popular for us.”

For Ed Edge, owner of RVA Vegan, the decision to go meatless and dairy-free was an easy one. The 27-year-old was raised Buddhist and said he has been vegan his whole life. He even has “vegan” tattooed across his chest.

One day in 2010, what started out of sheer boredom turned into a business venture for Edge and his friends. They built a pink food cart and decided to park it around campus, which led to the creation of RVA Vegan. The menu was cheap, with vegan hot dogs and cupcakes costing as little as $2, and it quickly became popular among students.

“Cupcakes became the gateway drug to veganism,” Edge said. “People would be like, ‘I couldn’t tell this was vegan.’ ”

Edge said he realized most of his customers just wanted cheap food, some of them unaware that what they were eating was vegan.

“Our minds started thinking, ‘If this food is good and you can’t tell it’s vegan, maybe we can use this as a way to show people that it’s not the ‘90s anymore and vegan food doesn’t have to suck,’ ” he said.

RVA Vegan currently sells only vegan cupcakes and tacos. The business has expanded since opening, and now sells near campus and downtown. Besides food carts, RVA Vegan also has a bus and plans to open a café in Shockoe Bottom within the next few months, Edge said.

Vegetarianism dates back to the ancient Greeks and various religious groups in Asia. According to the Vegan Society, the word ‘vegan’ was first coined in 1944 by Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley, co-founders of the British Vegan Society. The term remained obscure until the ‘90s, when veganism became vogue in cities like New York, Chicago and Portland, Ore., Edge said.

Edge, who has lived in Richmond since 2005, said veganism didn’t become popular in Richmond until 2009.

“It was present (in 2005) but not huge,” Edge said. “Now we have four or five vegetarian restaurants … (and) everyone has vegan options on their menus. I think it’s really taken off.”

In the ‘90s, Edge said vegan food carried a stigma. People thought the food was bland and tasteless, he said. But times have changed.

“We’re seeing that the stigma is decreasing. If this was eight or nine years ago, I wouldn’t even put ‘RVA Vegan’ on our cart, or bus or our company at all because vegan was synonymous with ‘bad,’ ” Edge said. “People would say things like ‘That probably tastes like crap,’ but now the stigma is, ‘Oh, vegan food usually tastes pretty good, it’s just slightly healthier for me.’ ”

Edge said VCU’s emphasis on diversity and the Quest for Distinction has played a significant role in getting people to try vegan food.

“It seems to be here, at VCU, a liberal arts college, more than anywhere else like George Mason, James Madison or Virginia Tech,” Edge said. “They don’t seem to focus on your impact on the world as much, thus veganism isn’t as big there.”

While he hasn’t noticed a significant increase in his vegan customer base, Edge said people are much more willing to try his food, which is the basis of RVA Vegan’s entire business philosophy.

“So our business model is set to trick people. If you just looked at our menu and not our name, you’d see beef taco, fish taco, with no quotation marks,” Edge said. “So you can order stuff, eat it and enjoy it and then leave and not know it was vegan, and that probably makes up the bulk of our customers.”

Ipanema Cafe, on 917 W. Grace St., is a vegetarian restaurant that serves vegan options.

Gregory Darden, manager of Ipanema, has noticed more people wanting to try the restaurant’s food.

“I think with the community here, with the extension to the music community and the campus, and with it being an art school with women’s studies and world studies, there is a world view that comes into play,” Darden said.

Though veganism is growing in popularity in Richmond, vegans still make up a small portion of the population nationwide. Harris Interactive, sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group, conducted a survey in 2012 estimating roughly two million vegans in the U.S., approximately one percent of the adult population.

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