Kzoo Kitchens

Vegan cuisine no longer just a trend

Menu options are expanding, a new all-vegan restaurant is soon to open, and a day-long festival at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market are expanding the horizons for area foodies.

Sue Creal-Bracy does it out of empathy.

“I have an emotional connection to animals,” she says.

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For her husband Andy Bracy, after his father died from cancer he read a study connecting the disease with eating meat, so he changed his diet.

But even staunchly non-vegan party goers were seen going back for seconds of Mapo Tofu Sliders, Mac & Cheese, Black Bean Tacos, and Vegan Onion Rings at a “Vegan Party” at Bell’s Eccentric Café over the summer.

  • a plate filled with various vegan foods, such as sliders, tacos, mac and cheese, and cookies
  • a woman smiles while holding a plate of vegan food
  • a tray filled with small vegan slider sandwiches
  • a tray of vegan onion rings

Once relegated to specialty grocery stores and niche gatherings, vegan dining options are becoming commonplace, from the availability of meat alternative substitutes to formal dishes added to menus of restaurants in Kalamazoo, which doesn’t have any all-vegan eateries – yet.

A full suite of options will be displayed at “The People’s Plant-based Party,” a day-long food, vendor, and music festival at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market on Sept. 25, thrown by the People’s Food Co-op and Vegan Kalamazoo, a resource and community of more than 4,000 members that organized the event at Bell’s.

At the cross-section of interest and innovation in vegan cuisine, a proper local gastronomy is sprouting.

When Vegan Kalamazoo held its first gathering in 2013, there were three people there, says co-founder Hillary Rettig, who became vegan after watching a documentary that tied mistreatment of animals and workers to poor quality consumer meat goods.

“I would say we went for a couple of years with like 20 or 30 people. And then it just took off,” Rettig says. “If you think about Kalamazoo, it’s educated. It’s a health-conscious kind of community. It’s an environmentally conscious kind of community. All of those are conduits (to veganism).”

Vegan diets date back thousands of years to an area that is now in India and Pakistan. It became more known in the United States in the 1940s and slowly throughout the decades as education increased and dishes evolved, it is practiced as a health choice, a method to reduce the environmental harm caused by modern food growing and processing, or an ethical decision for protecting animals. Like the reasons for the diet, there are a spectrum of adherences to it – from those who occasionally reduce the consumption of dead animals and dairy products to abstaining from animal derivatives in things like honey, make up, and clothing.

As social media has become an efficient community connector, Vegan Kalamazoo’s Facebook group became both a virtual gathering and resource space.

Shannon Tyler-Suarez, a local dental hygienist by day and an endurance athlete in her spare time, doesn’t like meat, seafood, or dairy and says she has seen significant improvement in recovery like less inflammation and joint pain when she switched her diet. She has become so familiar with the local vegan food scene that she finds herself being called on to repost her suggested list of vegan friendly restaurants in the Kalamazoo area.

“We’ve had a couple of restaurants tell us that we’re the reason that they made it through the pandemic, because, you know, vegans, we love our food,” says Rettig. “Sometimes it can be a little difficult to find our food, but when we find it, we find someone willing to work with us, we’re grateful.”

NowKalamazoo’s Kzoo Kitchens series began to explore vegan cuisine and we asked ‘if we had vegan guests in town, where would we take them to eat?’ Here are a few restaurants that were recommended to us:

Theo & Stacy’s

  • stacy skartsiaris sitting behind a plate of vegan spinach feta bake
  • a plate with a gyro, cup of sauce, and bowl of fruit
  • stacy skartsiaris sitting a table with her grandson keith peristeridis

When owner and co-founder Stacy Skartsiaris was asked to add vegan dishes to the menu that were authentic to the Greek restaurant, which has been a staple in Kalamazoo dining for nearly 50 years, she returned to her roots.

Stacy and late husband Theo created a more Americanized meat-centric menu when they immigrated in the 1960s, but she recalls more vegan and vegetarian meals growing up. And when Rettig asked if Stacy could bring that to Kalamazoo, she went all in.

One of the most popular is the Vegan Gyro that Stacy created with a secret blend of herbs and spices, aromatics, and meat substitute, served with a vegan tzatziki sauce. Other than the fresh, light taste, customers are hard pressed to tell the difference between it and the lamb and beef gyro or the dairy-based tzatziki. Another in-demand dish is the Spinach Feta Bake, similar to Spanakopita, the traditional cheese, spinach, and herbs baked in phyllo. Stacy spent hours vetting a vegan feta cheese that met her high expectations that best mimicked the original dairy version – after a side-by-side sampling, they were nearly indistinguishable.

It’s been a good addition to local vegan eating and for business. “You have to embrace change,” says Stacy’s daughter Betty Peristeridis. “Have you ever heard of Bill Knapp’s? They don’t exist today because they didn’t change. I tell my mom ‘We don’t want to be Bill Knapp’s so we’re embracing the need for vegan foods.'” They plan to restart their “Vegan Night” in the fall, offering specialty dishes in addition to the regular vegan options on the menu.

Pizza Katerina

  • a vegan pizza
  • Pizza Katerian owner Melodie Holman leaning on a counter

When Melodie Holman took over the restaurant in November 2020, she was trained by the previous owner’s niece who suffered from a severe dairy allergy. She pointed out that if they cross-contaminated the dairy-free pizza with tools used to make standard pizza she would be violently ill. This stuck with Holman.

Equipment is specially marked for dairy, vegan, gluten free, and those with nuts. It’s a passion for quality that is evident in the ingredients too. Mel, as she is called, makes trips to New York City to “improve the bake” of her crust, source local ingredients like mushrooms from a local farm, and toss out an expensive container of produce because it didn’t meet her specifications. She demands deliveries thrice weekly because, she quips, “who wants five-day-old basil?”

While faux cheese and meats can be substituted on many of the standard pizzas on the menu, Pizza Katerina also offers a handful of pies that are vegan by design. This includes the Vegan Thai Pizza, with house made Peanut Sauce, Thai Chili Sauce, and packed with fresh vegetables, topped vegan cheese. The sauces were full of flavor, but the star of the pizza was the crust – firm and crispy with a sourdough tang that belied the double fermentation process she uses to elicit a French bread finish on the bake.

Pizza Katerina is on the shortlist of nearly every vegan foodie we straw-polled for the article, part of a loyal customer base that has been a boon for business. Because of that, and other limiting factors that all restaurants are facing currently such as staffing, Pizza Katerina has had to narrow down its hours so it can focus on the dinner rush with shorter wait times.

Ope’s

  • two vegan burgers sitting on a wooden cutting board
  • a grilled flatbread sandwich
  • a tray of vegan cookies

Decades before the Impossible Burger patty was featured at Burger King, a non-meat burger pioneer was serving customers here in Kalamazoo. Created by Dr. Richard Oppenlander, an area dentist who studied nutrition and plant-based eating, Ope’s Burgers were being made and served nationwide.

The brick-and-mortar restaurants were closed in 2002, and since then his daughter Lauren Oppenlander has taken the helm of the Kalamazoo production facility. From here, they produce and ship their vegan sandwiches, burgers, wraps, and cookies around the country as well as to local outlets, hospitals, and healthy eating establishments, and for individual purchase.

The Veggie Burger, served at a summer BBQ, was flavorful, perfectly portioned with much better nutrition than standard grocery store vegetarian burgers. Ope’s burgers, made with non-GMO ingredients and very high in fiber, is lower in sodium, free of lactose, cholesterol and saturated fat, and with sufficient amounts of phytonutrients and vitamins. Ope’s also offers equally nutritious plant-based options in addition to their burgers like Ope’s Original Oatmeal Applesauce Cookies and a variety of stuffed sandwiches.

Oppenlander’s goal was to offer tasty but healthy equivalents to fast food options, with a minimal footprint on the environment.

GloFoods and Sweet Bees Gluten Free Bakery

  • a chocolate vegan donut filled with cream
  • a box full of various vegan cookies
  • a table covered in cases of vegan cupcakes

This fall, on the main drag of South Westnedge in Portage, a one-of-a-kind restaurant will open that serves 100% vegan food and caters to other dietary restrictions like gluten and peanut allergies. GloFoods will follow in the footsteps of other such cuisine with a mix of dishes that were vegan to begin with and also a twist on “favorite comfort foods like mac and cheese, warm soups, hearty sandwiches, and toasts.”

This new eatery is an outgrowth of proprietor and chef Sarah Scott’s first venture, the desert-focused Sweet Bees bakery just over the county line in Paw Paw that she opened three years ago. She began baking gluten free because her kids needed it, and business has been good because she’s not alone.

“I’ve done a lot of cakes for children who have never been able to have a birthday cake before. I would never want them not to have something special for their day,” Scott says. Then she discovered she had a severe egg allergy, which meant expanding her menu even further. “So, my cakes are now vegan.”

There are two-week wait times for her Unicorn Cake, which is vegan and gluten-free with natural food coloring. The Chocolate Vegan Donut Creams, a brownie-like Whoopie Pie donut, is rich with deep notes of cocoa and coffee, and the vegan whipped creme is light, sweet, and silky, providing a nice contrast to the dense cake. The Raspberry Thumbprint gives a sweet, tender sugar cookie fix with bright and tangy raspberry filling and a fun, sparkling icing drizzle.

“It’s not a trend,” Scott says. “It’s more like a dietary lifestyle choice that people are wanting more healthy, plant-based options. Whether its animal cruelty or for the planet, or just wanting something a little bit more cleaner for their bodies, just being more health conscious.”

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