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.

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