Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Opportunity Knocking for Vegan Food Businesses in North Austin

For a long time, vegans had been portrayed as thin and sickly and somehow naively concerned about animals, but as veganism has become progressively more popular, the image of vegans has shifted to being predominantly people who are fashionably against the grain, probably with tattoos, numerous piercings, and a taste for indie music. I am not going to bother trying to find any statistical information about who vegans may be, but from my experience, some fit the stereotypes, but most are just like everyone else in society. Some are old, some are young, some are fat, some are fit, some are conservative, some are liberal, some are nerdy, some are not. There's nothing special about the way a typical vegan looks. He or she takes all forms.

This leads me to the point of this post. I have been long perplexed by the absence of vegan trailers or restaurants in North Austin, but it has occurred to me that North Austin does not fit in with what would be considered the stereotypical place for the stereotypical vegan. Central and South Austin fit that much more closely. These are the edgier, hip, and welcoming to the counter culture. And there's lot of indie music, too. So, it is no surprise that vegan establishments have found successful followings in these areas. North Austin is a different sort of community. It is has sprawling housing developments and tech companies, such as IBM, National Instruments, Samsung, and Apple. It is newer and growing fast. In the last couple of years, the Domain has blossomed, and that has the same kind of dense development seen normally in downtown. For now, North Austin remains one of the most affordable parts of Austin, and that is driving development. But can a vegan establishment thrive in such an area?

Obviously, there are numerous criteria that would go into whether a business will be successful. Some include visibility, walk-up and drive-up traffic, word of mouth, social media savvy, customer service, a solid product, consistency, etc. Sometimes, a business falls short because the owners have not thought and executed everything through to the extent needed. This can even happen to a vegan business, even in Central or South Austin. More vegan businesses seem to be popping up in Austin, and those that do are finding themselves in those central and south locations. I do not know whether any business will succeed wherever it ends up, but I can say that my gut feeling is that vegan entrepreneurs are not giving North Austin the consideration it deserves. They are also not giving themselves the best chance at being successful. Central and South Austin probably can take more vegan establishments and be successful with them, but the competition is getting tighter and tighter. But in North Austin, there is little competition.

From a sheerly mathematical point of view, North Austin is a wide-open opportunity for the enterprising vegan businessperson. North Austin has about 175,000 residents residing in the zip codes 78727, 78728, 78752, 78753, 78754, and 78758. If you go by the dated 2008 Vegetarian Times study showing 10 percent of adults are vegetarian-inclined, 3.2 percent are actual vegetarians, and 0.5 percent are vegan and if North Austin follows that basic pattern for all of its residents (presuming children eat what their parents do), 17,500 of its residents would be vegetarian-inclined. Of that number 5,600 would be actual vegetarians, and 875 would be vegans. Surely, I am overestimating the potential customer base in North Austin? After all, North Austin is not home to as many of those stereotypical alternative types, right? Actually, those numbers are probably quite conservative. From 2009 to 2011, the number of people in the United States identifying themselves as vegetarian doubled, according to a Vegetarian Resource Group survey. This 2011 study suggests 3 percent of the population is vegan and 2 percent vegetarian. It also shows between 30 and 40 percent of people are curious about vegetarian foods. I'm sure there are even more recent studies, and I would not be surprised if the numbers have continued to grow. The Vegetarian Resource Group also shows an equal divide between Republicans and Democrats. This last tidbit is most interesting to me. Political party is not indicative of a person's ethical choices. Could some vegans actually wear ties?

Just because the area has a sufficient population does not necessarily guarantee a business's potential success, but it is useful to have numbers on your side. Right now, if a vegan from North Austin, Leander, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, Round Rock, or Georgetown wants to go to a vegan restaurant or trailer, that person will have a considerable distance to travel. A vegan establishment in North Austin will draw people from all of these areas more regularly than they would otherwise be capable of to more southerly locations. Consider those major employers I mentioned earlier. I can even expand upon Apple, IBM, Samsung, and National Instruments as businesses that call this area home. There is also Dell, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality headquarters, the Austin Independent School District, Austin Community College, the University of Texas J. J. Pickle Research Campus, St. David's North Austin Medical Center, Seton Northwest Hospital, and many more. There are probably a significant number of vegans and vegetarians who work at these places and do not reside in North Austin but still desire a friendly place for lunch occasionally.

If I were to pick a spot in North Austin in which a vegan restaurant or trailer would stand its best chance at surviving, I would pick in or around the Domain. It is a fast-growing area, and its success has far exceeded expectations. For whatever reason, even Whole Foods, seemed reluctant to open up in the Domain after it had finished the outside of its building, but after a year, it finally did. The opening was one of the most successful sales days in Whole Foods history. Look at the Steeping Room in the Domain with its vegan-friendly menu. It has been a huge success there, probably because it has been able to take advantage of the void left by the lack of vegan or vegetarian (other than Indian) places in North Austin. The Domain is centrally located in this part of North Austin, and can take advantage of much of the business traffic I referred to. It is most certainly not a question of whether a vegan restaurant or trailer will eventually open in North Austin but when. The first that does so will have the greatest advantage and little competition. But for the sake of local vegan entrepreneurs, just hope the first vegan establishment in North Austin is not a chain that sees the void and opportunity there, such as Native Foods or Veggie Grill, because once they are here, they will be hard to displace.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Outmaneuvering a Four-Year-Old at the Dinner Table, at Least for Today

Steamed kale with poppy seed dressing, avocado, homemade tempeh bacon
Feeding my recently turned four-year-old is tricky business. He has all sorts of opinions about food and is more than happy to not eat anything. At his annual doctor's checkup, he came in at 40 percent for height and 50 percent for weight. I do not consider those numbers to be bad by any means. Different children grow at different rates, and while I'm a bit more heavy than I should be at the moment, I'm fairly average in height, not that it is indicative on what is normal for his growth. When Leo was an infant, I know our numbers matched up exactly at the time. Of course, there are two factors that affect his growth: being a vegan and that he was breastfed for the first two years of his life. He's a solid and energetic boy. He is by no means malnourished. But Anita sees the other children in his Pre-K class, and she is worried about how much bigger than him those children are. I don't see that, though. He looks to me to be right around the middle of the class in size. There is one really large boy in his class with a potbelly, so we can be thankful our son is not headed in the direction of being overweight at the moment. That brings me back to food. One day our son will love a certain ingredient, and the next decide he doesn't want it anymore. This morning for instance, he told me he hates raisins. He has always raved about his breakfast of oatmeal with brown sugar, ground flaxseed, raisins, and dried cranberries, and he has consistently eaten it for years. Now, he is picking out the raisins, so I guess I need to make a modification to the morning ritual. As I was racking my brain to decide what to make my children for dinner, it occurred to me that my son has consistently eaten steamed kale with poppy seed dressing, avocadoes, and homemade tempeh bacon. Bingo, a meal! It was, indeed, a success for both my son and 21-month-old daughter. And now my worries of what to feed them, my son especially, have been allayed for a day.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Revolt at Dinnertime: Bitter Rice and the Awful Mango Switcheroo

Today was just one of those days that my cooking was a colossal disaster. I saw this nice recipe for sweet and sour tempeh, and I was convinced the kids would love it, especially since it would be sweet and simple. I am not certain whether it was a terrible recipe or whether my substitution doomed it. It was probably the latter. Sweet and sour sauces typically take pineapple juice. We didn't have any pineapple, but I was still determined to make it. I found a can of organic mangos stored in mango juice. I was certain this would be a brilliant substitution, and it would be a new cooking sensation. My daughter and son go bananas over mangos, so it seemed like a safe bet. I prepared it with kale on the side. The plain rice tasted fine before I added the cooked onions and chopped mango, and as far as I could tell the sauce seemed OK, if not a perfect representation of a sweet and sour sauce. My 20-month-old daughter pretty much rejected everything, but she is a toddler. She threw the tempeh with her characteristic "Uh!" added for emphasis. My son screamed at me that his rice had onions in it. My wife squinched her face and mouth and suggested that she heat some leftovers. My wife and I braved our way through the intensely bitter rice. I'm not sure if it was from the sauce or the chopped mangos in the rice or both. The tempeh was fine, and so was the dinosaur kale. I tossed my son's meal and gave him the rest of the plain kale with poppy seed dressing (he loves this). It was just one of those days, but the meal did look nice. Of course, looks can be deceiving.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

BBQ Revolution: Vegan Brisket Lives Up to Its Reputation

I finally got some of the legendary seitan brisket from BBQ Revolution. Fifth time's a charm. I have to say that it is awesome and well worth the wait. The flavor of the sauce and the texture of the brisket are spot-on. I like the tiny touch of heat in the sauce. I also got the vegan mac for the first time, and it was great, especially with the brisket and potato salad. I was expecting my kids to devour the mac, but what they really went after was the baked beans. Now, the only thing I have not had on the menu is the garbanzo bean tempeh rips. I'm looking forward to that. If I could give a little constructive suggestion for BBQ Revolution, it would be to have a Texas po' boy barbecue sandwich. That was always my favorite at barbecue restaurants down in South Texas. They are a layer of brisket, pulled pork (soy curls), barbecue sausage links, and onion and pickle to top it off. Of course, they would need to add sausage links to your menu, but the fattiness of sausage would really pair well with the meatiness of the brisket.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Power of Unity Vegan's Lasagna

I do not know what Unity Vegan puts in its lasagna, but whatever mysterious substances it possesses impressed my picky eating team, my four year old and my 20 month old. They gobbled it up. Believe me, that's a huge compliment. I think it is amazing, too.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Macaroni and Cheese No More: Getting Good Nutrition into Vegan Children with Nooch and Noodles

Vegan, Vegan Austin, Nooch and Noodles, Vegan Mac and Cheese
One thing that I like about vegan mac and (no) cheese is that when you make the sauce, you can incorporate extra nutrition. Very often, my children, one 20 months and the other 4 years old, reject whole chunks of vegetables, although I'm sure they are better than most. They will eat broccoli on most days, which I consider a major victory. Neither one will eat sweet potato chunks or eggplant or onions (if they are cut too big). They are iffy with carrots, sometimes yes, sometimes no. It is definitely a challenge getting good nutrition into their bodies. That brings me back to making a macaroni and (no) cheese sauce. For vegans, the traditional sauce is oily and heavy with nutritional yeast. Newer recipes feature cashews and a lot less oil. I like to boil potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots into the sauce with cashews, garlic, lots of nutritional yeast, some Earth Balance margarine, and salt. I do not use a recipe when I cook, but I got inspired by this recipe from VegNews years ago. I like to put broccoli with the cooked whole wheat noodles and sauce, but you can put other things into it, such as whole corn or even Brussels sprouts. So, on a nutritional level, this meal is a definite winner for my children, and I do not feel guilty about giving them this. As a vegan parent raising vegan children, I worry about sending my children mixed messages. Despite feeling uncomfortable about it, I have always called the meal I just described as macaroni and cheese. To someone not raised a vegan, I can totally understand why calling a vegan dish macaroni and cheese would be comforting, but a child raised vegan does not have the same type of nostalgia about a lifestyle he or she is unfamiliar with. Even though my four year old is down with being vegan as far as he can understand it, what happens when he goes to school or some social event, and they are serving what they call macaroni and cheese? Despite all of my precautions with his school (they do not serve meals there, thank goodness) and everything my wife and I have told him, he may get confused and eat what is offered him, not realizing it is not vegan. To resolve this problem, I have experimented with other names, but nothing has had that satisfying verbal quality to it as the simple macaroni and cheese or mac and cheese. Macaroni and cashew sauce? Please. Yesterday, as I was making this meal, an even better name occurred to me: nooch and noodles. It has nice alliteration. I think this could work. Now, we just need to learn this name as a family, and I hope we can avoid such name confusion with other meals in the future.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dairy, Acid Reflux, and Great Speakers Coming to Austin (Yes, They Are Related)

These upcoming Engine2 Diet talks here in Austin look amazing, if you have the time and, oh, $550 laying around. One of the speakers is Mark Bittman of The New York Times. His columns, which are sometimes vegan friendly, can be infuriating, but there are a couple columns that I highly recommend. They deal with the connection between dairy and acid reflux and Bittman's long struggle with the problem. In lieu of the medication he was taking, he cut out dairy, and his acid reflux went away. This blew my mind because I had reached my own conclusion about dairy years ago. I used to get acid reflux, too, even after I went vegetarian. I remember this gourmet pizza place in Salado that would make the acid reflux flair up big time. I would kneel over in pain. Of course, like everyone else, I loved my cheese and didn't want to give it up. When I went vegan, the acid reflux went away entirely. I haven't had any issues in a decade. That is one reason why I do not get overly excited about the new vegan cheeses on the market. Here are the two Bittman columns:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Vegan Taco Update: Taco 'Bout It Closes; Vegan Nom Relocating

Taco 'Bout It has closed. This is a message on the business's Facebook page today: "A time sensitive opportunity presented itself recently and a hard decision to retire Taco 'Bout It has been made. Thank you for having faith in my business, your constant encouragement, and above all your friendship. Peace!" That means Austin is down to one vegan taco stand, Vegan Nom, which is also in a state of flux. They are in the process of moving from the Buzz Mill back to their old location on North Loop. This change was sudden this weekend, so I imagine some kind of fallout occurred with the Buzz Mill. While I love having Vegan Nom closer, I am saddened for the people in South Austin who got used to their presence. There is no word about the second trailer they have been planning on opening for months now, but I wouldn't doubt they will have South Austin in mind when they do.