Twenty years ago anyone could be forgiven for assuming the diet of Indianapolis residents was comprised of two food groups, "Fast" and "Fair." Ask any vegetarian from the mid-'90s. Better yet, ask a vegan. They'll likely tell you about the desert landscape of options in most major grocery stores, of sparse health food sections (if they existed at all), of traditional food alternatives that were both uncreative and unappetizing. They will laughingly describe the selection of milk alternatives and insult the meat substitutes as a choice between soft tofu and firm tofu. They will explain with rolling eyes the term "Vee-gun" was consistently mispronounced as "Vay-gun." What they won't tell you about, however, was the availability of vegetarian restaurants in the city or the oases of restaurants with menus they could choose from without concern of consuming obscure animal ingredients. Yes, things were quite different 20 years ago.
Fast forward to today and in the relatively short span of 20 years, the conditions have changed dramatically. Groceries have built out health food sections with plentiful vegetarian options and entire stores are dedicated to health food. The options for milk alternatives can be confusingly extensive and traditional food analogues now include luxury items like vegan pepper jack cheese, vegan cookie dough and vegan marshmallows. Ex-presidents have adopted a plant-based diet along with professional athletes, and the cultural awareness of veganism has swelled to such a state that New York Magazine deemed 2014, "The Year of The Vegan."
Despite all these advancements, markers that Indianapolis might be more culturally progressive than we are given credit for, some things have stayed the same. Most tellingly, Indianapolis still lacks a wide selection of vegetarian or vegan restaurants, despite being surrounded by Midwest cities of comparable size offering multiple vegetarian restaurant options. Although countless restaurants have begun adding vegetarian and vegan selections to their menus, few have stepped forward to establish an all-vegetarian restaurant. The reasons for this can be as elusive as they are obvious, but a few cultural pioneers have begun laying plans to remedy this oversight.
Ian Phillips, creator of the locally popular meat alternative "Seitan High-Fives," is the among the cultural pioneers working to open a vegetarian restaurant in Indianapolis. Motivated by the popularity of his High-Fives and the realization of a much greater market for vegetarian food in the area, Phillips began detailing his plans for the Three Carrots vegetarian restaurant just over a year ago. Since then he has hosted multiple sold-out fundraising dinners, watched his High-Five's sales increase and worked to untangle the red tape that marks the path to an official grand opening. Phillips has sifted through the market research, followed the national dietary trends and received support from the experts at Small Business Administration, who were surprised to learn Indy has zero vegetarian restaurants. He believes that the time is now ripe for a vegetarian restaurant to open and experience long-term success.
A vegan for 17 years, Phillips will admit that Indianapolis was slow to embrace certain trends such as vegetarianism that are often more prevalent in diverse, urban environments, but he adds that our reputation as a strictly fast food populace is now dated.
"I think Indy isn't as meat and potatoes as we think we are," stated Phillips. "I feel we are a vibrant city with people up and doing stuff."
To that end Phillips is putting his money where his mouth is and continuing to push for a full-scale vegetarian restaurant with the belief this trend towards plant-based diets will only continue, envisioning multiple vegetarian restaurants opening in the next five to 10 years.
Jessica Suhre, an 18-year vegan and founder of the Indianapolis Vegetarian Society, shares Phillips' belief that the market to sustain an all-vegetarian restaurant is already here — and the future of Indianapolis vegatarianism will only get better. Started in 1998, the Indy Veg Society was small enough to encompass its members on a call list, but now boasts over 1,700 users between its email list and Facebook page. IVS is an inclusive, vegetarian-based social group that hosts "dine-outs" at veggie-friendly restaurants and offers informational resources via its website, indyvegsociety.org, among other activities. To highlight her confidence in a successful vegetarian restaurant for Indy, Suhre will point to the growing IVS member roster and expanded menus of local eateries around town.
"I think the demand is getting there and for places to change a special every week for vegans — that's huge," said Suhre. "They know we're out there, we just need to convince them that a full-fledged restaurant is going to work."
To prove Suhre's perception of a demanding vegetarian market, one only needs to visit Thai Taste's vegan buffet the third Thursday of every month where table space is often shared amongst strangers and a wait-time is common. The same goes for Spice Nation's mostly vegan buffet held every Thursday, and is a popular gathering for IVS meet-ups. The last themed vegan event planned by IVS, a vegan Valentine's Day dinner, sold out as soon as it was posted online.
The reasons for this rise in vegetarian popularity are debatable, but the ease of information sharing through social media has undoubtedly played a part. Phillips pointed out the same ethical and environmental issues related to animal agriculture still resonate today, but the ability to influence others via social media around these concerns has only expanded. That expanded sharing ability is coupled with a greater number of celebrities adding to the exposure, from ex-president Bill Clinton to Ellen Degeneres to Jay-Z influencing a new generation of vegetarians and vegans. Even Michael Pollan, foodie author and meat eater, contributing to the discussion of food in general has raised the overall awareness and acceptance of vegetarianism. These dynamics have been playing out around the country for years, so why Indianapolis is just finally coming around is still a bit of a mystery. Indy may be slow to join the conversation, but that doesn't mean we have never been on the same page as the West Coast when it comes to vegetarian dining.