Veganism finds permanence and thrives in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by ZAINA ABUJEBARAH

Salt Lake City is seen as an up-and-coming concrete jungle that houses multiple subcultures in its alternative underground scene. One of the most prominent since the late 1990s has been the vegan community.

By definition, veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

Ian Brandt, owner of two of the city’s vegan staples — Vertical Diner and Sage’s Cafe — was a pioneer for plant-based eating. It all started in 1998 with a food cart. Brandt would set up shop at local farmers markets, concerts and other special events around downtown.

“I always liked the idea of engaging with some sort of business that was connected with people where there was a human element involved,” Brandt said during a phone interview. “There was a need for more plant-based restaurants at the time. A few dishes were available here or there, but there weren’t many options, even in the country, for plant based eating.”

Brandt said the idea caught on quickly here, after bigger states like California and New York established the plant-based trend.

Between 1998, when Vertical Diner opened, and 2010, there was growth in the vegan community. Even so, patrons yearned for more than just kale salads and wheatgrass shots.

Roxy and Alex decided to take their love for animals and apply it to opening their own compassionate sandwich shop, Buds. (Roxy and Alex asked that their last names not be used; they felt that a focus on their identity shifted attention from the vegan movement and their message of compassion.)

It wasn’t until they opened Buds (509 E. 300 South) that they discovered just how big the community was. There was a big demand for food that not only tasted good but also left a positive impact on the environment.

“We really wanted to show people that veganism can be accessible, affordable and approachable. We wanted to make food for people and have them be blown away by their food,” Roxy said during a phone interview. “We are people fighting for the same things they (other vegans) are fighting for. That’s the amazing thing about Buds — it opened up the doors to an entire community.”

The success and popularity of Buds inspired Roxy and Alex to take on another project. In the summer of 2017, the business partners launched two new projects, Boltcutter and Monkeywrench, in the Gallivan Center.

Boltcutter serves classic, comforting, south-of-the-border favorites like carne asada tacos, nachos and “elotes,” while Monkeywrench offers delicious coffees and gourmet ice cream.

“Mexican cuisine has always been my absolute favorite. It lends itself to veganizing those items so easily,” Roxy said.

Alex added, “Ice cream is something that translates easily to non-vegans. It’s a dairy staple but it’s easy to sell for cheap and it makes a bold statement to people that think that they need dairy to have ice cream.”    

Roxy and Alex stress that eating mindfully isn’t just for the vegan community. They both are impressed by the variety of people they see at their establishments.

“I would never guess that certain people were vegan,” Roxy said. “A vegan doesn’t just fit that classic stereotype. Conscious people have realized that their actions directly affect everything around them.”

It’s these compassionate ideals that motivated Alex and Roxy, as well as another Salt Lake City local, to embark on a culinary quest. Andrew Early, owner of the soon-to-be-diner, Mark of the Beastro, has his sights set on catering to the “greasy spoon,” comfort-food niche.  

Early grew up in a household that encouraged hunting and eating meat, but he turned vegetarian in high school. However, it wouldn’t be until he made a few major life adjustments and went through rehab that Early would change his eating habits.

“I decided that if I was going to change my life, why not change it completely?” Early said. That was the beginning of his activism for animal rights.

The Mark of the Beastro, located on 666 S. State St., which started as an idea among three friends, has been in the works for 10 years. “Back then, the vegan restaurants sucked,” Early said. “There was a big lack.”

Though it’s just Early running the Beastro on his own, he still pushes the same ideals he had 10 years ago. He wants to serve good quality comfort food that can fool any non-vegan in the Salt Lake Valley while creating a communal space for the community.

“A lot of what I serve are the things I would want,” Early said. “People want vegan food for two reasons, the commitment to the cause and healthy eating.”

Early tries to accommodate those who want healthier options, but his main focus is to serve those who choose veganism because it is the “right thing to do,” but don’t want to miss out on their favorite foods.

This focus is showcased through his grease-heavy, classic diner-inspired menu that features numerous breakfast items like French toast, breakfast sandwiches and garbage hash, as well as hearty dinner options, soups, salads, desserts and anything a diner-dweller could dream of veganizing.

The vegan community is flourishing in Salt Lake City, and the local business owners want to encourage the well-being of the animals and promote a healthy lifestyle for plant-based eaters and carnivores alike. By working hard every day, these and other restaurateurs provide various options and solutions to support a conscious lifestyle and a diverse community.

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