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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Veganism is here to stay

Tomatoes Gonna’ Tomate

If you consistently take part in RI’s vibrant and eclectic culinary scene, you’ve probably noticed that over the years there has been a steady increase in plant-based food and eateries populating the landscape.

I talked to a few of the area’s most notable vegan and vegetarian restauranteurs about the push toward a meatless existence. Karen Krinsky is the owner of Like No Udder, RI’s first vegan ice cream shop (and truck!). Kim Anderson is a co-founder (along with Matthew Kenney Cuisine Group) of Plant City, Providence’s brand new multi-concept plant-based food hall. Rob Yaffe is the co-owner (along with his wife Uschi Yaffe) of RI vegan institutions The Grange, Garden Grille and Wildflour Vegan Bakery and Juice Bar.

Chuck Staton (Motif): What was your introduction to veganism?

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Kim Anderson (Plant City): Our son asked us to watch two movies, Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy, almost four years ago. 

Rob Yaffe (The Grange): I was first introduced to vegetarianism by my grandmother Reggie Jaffe who in 1941 became vegan for the rest of her life.

Karen Krinsky (Like No Udder): At the age of 10, I turned vegetarian and then transitioned to vegan in 1993 when I graduated high school. I recall meeting someone a few years older than me at a holiday party who questioned my eating meat. This started my path, where I was awoken to animal suffering AND the impact on the environment. For anyone who lives a vegetarian life and does it for any reasons except strictly health, it’s natural for that person to become vegan. In fact, if they don’t become vegan, they are missing the point.

CS: Why did you decide to start a vegan business?

KA: [In response to watching the movies] we then created a fund to invest in plant-based foods to impact against climate crisis. A food hall and marketplace with hand-crafted, elevated plant-based food we knew and loved as fans of Matthews NYC and California restaurants was a natural progression to maximize impact from there. We wanted to offer beautiful, creative, delicious food in a welcoming and well-designed environment, served by kind and mission-aligned staff to all, regardless of protein preference. A large majority of our guests are not plant-based.

RY: In 1971 my mother Erna started the Golden Sheaf Natural Foods market and Juice Bar on North Main Street. Eventually I took that over, owned and operated it until 1990. I started the Garden Grille in 1996 because the Providence area had no vegetarian restaurants at that time and the community wanted and needed a healthier food option, and I grew up in a family where vegetarianism was a part of our history. With my wife Uschi, we opened Wildflour in 2010 and the Grange in 2013.

KK: Like anyone trying to figure out what to do with their lives, I searched for the right path. There have been major challenges along the way! In the early 2000s I saw a niche not being filled at all, and opened The Screaming Vegan, a wholesale vegan baking business. Years after I closed that business, I started Like No Udder. We started with a truck and added a storefront years later. I always wanted to do something great with veganism, and have a career where I could support myself, live my values and show others that being vegan is doable.

CS: How was your experience taking on this challenge?

KA: It’s been an amazing experience, and we have been overwhelmed by the support from Providence and beyond. The most beautiful benefit has been meeting so many wonderful guests, many who are already regulars. For challenges, it has taken several weeks, but we have been able to build a team of 190+ talented and caring staff. We are also building a full schedule of classes, events and speakers in our community Cellar. Of course Plant City, which houses four restaurants, a coffee bar, a retail market and cellar with 300+ seats and a full service patio, has many moving parts and requires diligence and hard work to manage. 

RY: The story of our businesses is one about nurturing community and creating spaces where people come together, gather and connect around a plant-based diet. From the very beginning, in 1971, we’ve listened to the needs of those seeking a healthier alternative and constantly grew and innovated to meet those needs. All businesses present challenges. For us, what sustained our growth was our mission and purpose, to serve the greater community. We have customers today, that I was serving fresh cold pressed juices to in 1971 in my mother’s store. 

KK: There were times I wanted to give up. Finding customers, building a brand from scratch, dealing with technical problems (my ice cream truck broke down a lot)…but all of those challenges were met through support from my husband and family. I absolutely did not do this alone. And obviously, if I didn’t have the support of my customers, the business wouldn’t still be here.

CS: Why do you believe that veganism has become much more mainstream recently?

PC: We have been blessed with massive support, and have served more than 120,000 guests in our first 11 weeks. It has been thrilling. In January, the week we began construction on Plant City, we read an article by Economist magazine that 37% of Americans self identified as wanting to eat more plant-based. That’s a massive and encouraging number. Eating plant-based pulls four big levers — climate crisis and environmental issues, health care and health care cost issues, social justice issues and animal ethics issues — and most do seem concerned with one or more of these. We make it easy and enjoyable to eat sustainably.

RY: Veganism and vegetarianism have been around for a very long time — since the mid 1800s. Over the past 48 years that I’ve been involved (through our family businesses) it’s moved from alternative to where it is today because of a slow but growing awareness of the connection between health and our food choices, the inhumane treatment of animals with factory farming, and the effect of the meat industry on the environment.

KK: I have seen firsthand how times have changed and that the word ‘vegan’ is mainstream now. We’ve built friendships with customers and feel we’re not just a business, but part of the community. There are so many arguments for veganism being a lifestyle worth living. These have been highlighted in national news stories, meat substitutes have gone mainstream in chain restaurants and the quality of vegan options in the last 10 years has skyrocketed. It is undeniable that these foods can be delicious and as a byproduct, also will help reduce the unsustainable use of land and water to produce meat and dairy.

Although it’s difficult to sum up the progression of plant-based businesses with creative and caring owners and how that affects the culinary scene surrounding those businesses, Karen Krinsky said it best.

“We’ve grown because people want what we have to offer. Gone are the days of plain tofu and a can of beans. Times have changed.” 

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