Naijha Wright-Brown, owner of Mount Vernon-based vegan soul food spot The Land of Kush, enjoys getting out of her own kitchen to dine at other restaurants around the city. However, she’s grown tired of servers offering her a salad as her only option or, worse, being urged to head around the corner for something suiting her dietary restrictions.
“I was offended by that,” she said of the suggestion. “The vegans are out there, and people need to understand that there is a market, and if you’re a restaurant then you have to have more than salad.”
Wright-Brown linked up with staff from Hampden’s vegan-friendly Golden West Café to see if they could recruit other restaurant for a citywide culinary event geared toward Baltimore’s non-animal consumers, if even just for a week. From their collab, Baltimore’s first-ever Vegan Restaurant Week was born.
More than 30 restaurants have signed on. Starting tomorrow and running through Saturday, Aug. 26, participating eateries around the city will be offering a variety of vegan dishes, some with one or only a few options, others a smorgasbord. Unlike regular Baltimore Restaurant Week, there won’t be a prix fixe menu of any kind. In fact, Sam Juengel, owner of Golden West, said prices will be kept relatively low to try to keep it open to diners of all incomes.
Featured eateries will include both Land of Kush and Golden West, of course, as well as Miss Shirley’s Café, HomeSlyce Pizza Bar, Encantada, The Outpost American Tavern, and Stall 11 in Remington’s R. House, among others.
Juengel said her popular Southwestern fare spot on The Avenue has already had plentiful experience with vegan culinary events. Golden West has served dishes with no animal byproducts since it opened in 1997, and has hosted two of its own “vegan weeks” each year since 2014.
“It was always my hope in previous years that other restaurants would kind of catch on…but no one ever really approached us until Naijha did in February,” she said.
Charm City has an ample customer base to support a vegan-friendly restaurant week, according to Shannon Light Hadley, Golden West’s marketing and events manager and an organizer of the event.
“There is a thriving vegan community in Baltimore,” Hadley wrote in an email. “But beyond that one of the goals of Baltimore Vegan Restaurant Week is to raise awareness of just how creative and delicious vegan food can be.”
A growing number of local restaurants are offering vegan options nowadays, she said. Even so, recruiting did pose some challenges.
One obstacle was simply convincing other restaurateurs that the market is out there, Wright-Brown said. On the flipside, those running smaller restaurants expressed concerns about meeting demand from an influx of vegan customers who Wright-Brown said would be flocking to Baltimore from the surrounding region.
Juengel also said some vegan and vegetarian restaurants responded with concerns about competition, worried they might lose customers to establishments not normally catering to vegan diners.
There’s also the fact that not all restaurants can modify their menus for such an occasion. Wright-Brown mentioned oyster bars and steakhouses as examples. “We understand who the restaurant market is and who we are,“ she said.
Local favorites catering to meat lovers are buying in, however. Blue Pit BBQ and Whiskey Bar is offering its pulled jackfruit as an alternative to pork, brisket or chicken. Luigi’s Italian Deli, known for its hearty cold cuts, will be serving a house-made falafel sandwich with red pepper hummus, cucumber, red onion and greens.
It’s not hard for a restaurant to adapt, said Hadley, and switching out animal-based ingredients encourages chefs to get creative. “A lot more foods are actually vegan than you might expect, and so many animal-products can be substituted for alternatives,” she said.
Many eateries already make exceptions for most diners with severe food allergies, Juengel noted. “This is the next step.”
Some restaurants may benefit from broadening their clientele to those who abstain from eating meat and animal byproducts. It’s worked for Golden West, which Juengel said has seen sales jump by 10 percent during each of its vegan weeks.
“These people are hungry for good things,” she said. “They want to spend their money buying interesting, fun food, things that taste good. Why not cater to an audience that’s hungry for options?”
Click here for a list of all featured and participating restaurants in Baltimore Vegan Restaurant Week, which runs from Aug. 18-26.
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