Editor's note: An astute reader pointed out that Indy currently has at least two 100 percent vegetarian restaurants: Spice Nation and Nacho Mama. This story has been updated to account for these culinary pioneers.
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."
"I feel the concept that we're going to have to make do with Applebee's for the rest of our lives is not true ... I don't think we're a backwards city. I don't think we give ourselves enough credit, as far as what is available and what we can do with it. The city can be and do so much, but people don't acknowledge it," he added.
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.
Few know better about what it takes to make a vegetarian restaurant work than Duos co-owner Becky Hostetter, who created and ran the vegetarian restaurant Essential Edibles in the '80s. Hostetter established the restaurant when the consciousness of the city was less accepting than it is today and yet, even then, the restaurant experienced success, which Hostetter attributed to quality food and direct customer interaction rather than a strong demand for vegetarian options.
As the vegetarian yin to the meat-based yang of Duos, Hostetter explained the closure of Essential Edibles was due to the learning curve of actually running a financially growing business. She has watched the development of progressive culture in Indy grow, enabled by the connectivity of social media, and feels the talent pool is now being filled with young entrepreneurs who have both the drive and culinary experience to establish another successful, long-term vegetarian restaurant.
"A vegetarian restaurant is going to come. It has to be a certain attitude about trusting the city and trusting our population," Hostetter said.
That attitude for Hostetter has involved trust, but also a good dose of fortitude. She confesses it's a challenge cutting a new path in a city slow to accept social change, but also admits to enjoying that challenge, both in running a successful business and in convincing people to expand their culinary horizons. Hostetter doesn't necessarily like to fly the vegetarian flag as a marketing tool, but will intentionally point out the meal a customer just thoroughly enjoyed did not contain animal products or that the produce in their salad and on their burger came from a local farm. Hostetter sees her challenges overcome through the value of good food and equally good customer interaction, which she feels all future vegetarian restaurant entrepreneurs need to keep in mind.
With Duos expanding from their food truck to a brick and mortar location and another coming location inside the new Eskenazi Hospital, Hostetter is in a fortunate position with respect to the city's vegetarian market. Although Duos does not have an extensive 10-year expansion plan, she feels there will only be progression with the vegetarian market and the up-and-coming culinary entrepreneurs will have a supportive community to feed.
"Just get down and do the dirty work," Hostetter advised. "I really think that if you know your audience and keep communication and be present ... they'll want to know you ... and the more you'll have a personal relationship with the people you are cooking for."
Admittedly, despite their hopeful outlook, not everyone is unreservedly confident in the Indianapolis vegetarian market. Nick Keener, creator of the vegan specials at The Sinking Ship, has bounced back and forth between Indianapolis and Minneapolis for the past 17 years, getting a taste for both cultures. Minneapolis boasts an all-vegetarian restaurant, all-vegan restaurant and countless veggie/vegan-friendly options around the city. Keener has taken the influence of Minneapolis vegan options and adapted them to the menu at The Sinking Ship, and although some of them have become best sellers for the bar/restaurant, he still isn't sure Indy is ready to accept a restaurant that is limited to only vegetarian options. Keener attributes part of the success of The Sinking Ship to its offerings for everyone, omnivores and herbivores both. He believes a restaurant that excludes the omnivore niche is still going to struggle in the Indianapolis market despite the growing acceptance of vegetarian eating habits over the years.
Sharing in Keener's apprehension is WB Pizza founder, Will Barnes, who has been in the restaurant business for decades. But his co-owner and wife, Kathy Arensman, disagrees. An ethical vegetarian since 1978 and an "evolved" vegan since 1991, Arensman passionately wants a vegetarian restaurant to open in Indianapolis and has pledged her support for such an endeavor. In the meantime, she has expanded the options for vegetarians by adding options to the WB Pizza menu such as "The Vegan" pizza, a vegan stromboli, vegan pastas and salads. What Arensman and Barnes do agree upon is that any successful vegetarian restaurant will have to be based primarily on quality food.
"What it would take for it to be successful is to make the food good enough that carnivores and omnivores want to eat it too," Arensman stated.
Barnes and Arensman have taken that approach with the options they offer to all their customers, relying on quality ingredients and not using meat substitutes. Barnes doesn't want his food to pretend it is something it isn't, but wants to offer something for everybody. Supporting their approach to quality food are the newly vegetarian customers Arensman says have made the transition to vegetarianism because of health concerns instead of concern for animal welfare. Made popular by an increasing number of celebrities and professional athletes, the focus on health has influenced more and more individuals to adopt a vegetarian/vegan diet or compelled omnivores to seek out vegetarian options on an intermittent basis.
"I think in Indianapolis the progression is health-related, not ethical," said Arensman. "We have customers who are in their 50s and are thinking about how to be healthier and live longer...older vegans are doing it for their health."
If Arensman is correct that health concerns will expand the vegetarian market in Indianapolis and create a successfully long-term restaurant for herbivores, then Audrey Barron is on the right path. Barron, an on and off vegetarian since 2005, is set to open Ezra's Enlightened Cafe this May. The all-vegetarian, gluten-free cafe, and almost vegan except for the use of honey, will offer mostly raw food that has not been heated over 120 degrees, which is meant to preserve the nutritional density of the food's ingredients. The offerings will also be completely organic.
Barron admits it might be a risk to open a fringe market restaurant, not to mention a fringe of the fringe, in a city where most people come from the country, bringing along their ingrained, well-worn eating habits, but she also believes the awareness and demand for healthy food has hit something of an apex. Not only was her Kickstarter fund drive successful, bringing in over $10,000 of start up capital, but the response she has received from potential customers has been more than encouraging.
"I have a good pulse for what people are wanting," Barron declared. "I've had people come to me in tears after announcing this."
Her health-focused approach to vegetarianism has developed such positive response that people are calling
everyday with the perception the cafe has already opened. Barron has even compiled a list of individuals who want the cafe to succeed so much they offered to volunteer when the doors are open.
A personal chef for many years, Barron wants to create a restaurant that offers high-quality food that is an alternative to traditional Midwestern fare such as fast food and heavily processed ingredients. Barron believes the state's health problems are due to poor eating habits and wants to offer food that doesn't just avoid bad health, but creates good health. She is, however, facing the same red tape that Ian Phillips and most restaurant entrepreneurs must navigate before bringing their ideas to fruition. Ezra's Enlightened Cafe was originally set to open in October of 2013, but was pushed back to January of this year and is now scheduled for May, due primarily to obtaining various build permits.
Logistics not withstanding, Barron is ready to open the cafe, but admits she would not have tried this five years ago as she did not feel Indy was ready for such a culinary innovation. With the advancement of social media and a wider consciousness of food issues, she is more optimistic about Indianapolis' vegetarian culture.
"I can see Indianapolis becoming the Portland, Oregon of the Midwest," Barron said. "I hope we get tons of vegetarian restaurants, more local foods, a farmer's market feel, using local farmers and produce. I see it happening. It's going to take awhile...we tend to be a little slower, but I think it's going to happen."
The Portland, Oregon of the Midwest may be pie-in-the-sky thinking, but it does express how the new wave of vegetarian entrepreneurs feel about Indy's culinary and cultural future. There is less self-doubt about opening a culturally progressive restaurant and the naysayers have given way to a much more encouraging community. The idea that Indianapolis is a backwards, backwoods haven of old thinkers is giving way to the belief that we actually are a "World Class City", influenced by the arts more than sports and that maybe the notion that we can't take cultural and financial risks was all just a matter of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A perfect storm seems to be brewing in Indianapolis for vegetarian restaurants. It made its way around the country for years and has finally blown into our area, bringing a mixture of food issue awareness, innovative and driven young entrepreneurs, and the vision to create a culture that is as diverse and progressive as most capital cities tend to be. It may be far-fetched to say that a vegetarian restaurant or two will bring Indianapolis into the modern era of urban living, but it does indicate our willingness to embrace the fringes of popular culture and shed some of the perceptions those living outside the Midwest tend to have about us. And even if the red tape insurmountably entangles the restaurant entrepreneurs this time around, at least there are plentiful menu additions, milk alternatives and vegan marshmallows to tide the vegetarian/vegan community over until the next attempt. n