The Daily Co-op, a consumer-owned cooperative grocery store on Prince Avenue, has been fundamental in supplying the ingredients to eateries in Athens who in turn produce tasteful vegan selections.
In recent years, the business has been joined by an accumulation of vegan restaurants, as well as accommodations to support plant-based lifestyles in the traditionally non-vegan businesses. With a growing population in town, the question is whether the vegan community can continue to grow and be sustained by local eateries despite the challenges it entails.
McKenzie Johnson, a sophomore exercise and sports science major and the social media coordinator for Speak Out for Species, became vegan two years ago. She said one of the main challenges of avoiding animal products at meals was the lack of selection at local restaurants.
Although Johnson initially craved foods like cheese and ice cream, the alternatives that became available in Athens helped make the lifestyle easier. With restaurants such as The Grit and the newly-opened Eden’s Cafe, as well as the vegan options that the University of Georgia has added to its markets, Johnson said that she thinks Athens is moving in the right direction.
Kara Brown, the general manager of Daily Co-op, was impressed when she moved to Athens from New England by the number of available places that tended to specific dietary needs. Meals such as Hi-Lo Lounge’s Tofurkey Club and Vegan brunch platter, Seabear Oyster Bar’s vegetarian-style ramen night, Clocked!’s black bean burgers with vegan cheese and Maepole’s tempeh protein have sufficient accommodations for diners trying to avoid animal products, Brown said.
“You can feel safe going anywhere in Athens if you have someone with you with dietary restrictions and there will probably be something for them there,” Brown said.
With a number of vegans on staff, providing these substitutes is a large focus of the consumer-owned cooperative business. Brown has also seen a trend in regards to the store’s deli, which sells almost 90% vegan products.
“[Veganism] is a big part of what we want to offer and what we want to highlight for the community,” Brown said.
The Daily Co-Op also assists in supplying restaurants that serve these accommodations with the necessary ingredients. The store’s local partners program allows smaller Athens eateries to reap the benefits of the volume discount the Daily Co-op receives. This program also allows the co-op’s partners to bypass the ordering, on-site reception and invoice completion and simply pick up the products that they ordered at the grocery store.
“It’s such a great way for us to have connections to the community,” Brown said. “Athens has a pretty tight-knight service industry and this is just another one of the ways that we’re all tied together.”
Nick Bradfield, co-owner of Eden’s Cafe, orders his groceries through this program. He said he opened the plant-based, grab-and-go restaurant, which sells items like hummus, tempeh and vegan pastries, to fill a void in Athens.
Bradfield, a long-time member of the Classic City’s music scene and band member of the band, White Rabbit Collective, said he would often be out late playing music and couldn’t find any place to eat healthy food. Bradfield hopes to connect vegans in the area and expand the lifestyle.
“I would love to have this be a place of [vegan] connection,” Bradfield said. “I would love to have more people in the community give it a try and see what it’s all about.”
Johnson said for anyone interested in trying vegan options, taking small steps is the best approach. Bradfield agreed, and cited the importance of eating a wide variety of foods and the impact that each person can have by making small changes.
“There’s too much white or black in veganism,” Bradfield said. “It’s really just about a percentage. From an environmental standpoint in the least, I think if we were all able to cut back just a little bit that it would be beneficial.”
Eden’s Cafe is the first all-vegan cafe to open in Athens. Its location on West Broad Street was formerly home to Broad Street Coffee, a vegan restaurant and coffee shop that closed in December 2013. While Bradfield hopes for expansion in the future, a number of challenges threaten this growth.
A difficult equation
For a college student on a budget, trying to eat vegan is extremely difficult, Brown said. As an employee in the food industry, she said it’s disheartening no food sold in stores reflects the environmental, labor and shipping costs it takes to get it there.
“All of our food is subsidized on a corporate level so all the big players that are making the money off of it are reaping the benefits while we don’t have nearly enough subsidies for people on the consumer level for people to afford healthy food,” Brown said.
Bradfield also recognizes this imbalance and said the conventional and internationally-sourced food found at large, chain grocery stores make it difficult to give farmers the wages they deserve.
“It’s a really difficult equation to get the bills paid and at the end of the day have a product that’s ethically fairly and sustainably sourced,” Bradfield said.
Bradfield’s approach for tackling these obstacles is compromise. He hopes that in the future, he can establish more relationships in the community to improve and localize their recipes for their customers.
Despite the struggles that vegans and businesses that provide vegan products face, Brown is hopeful for the development of more businesses in Athens like Eden’s Cafe who comprise the heart of Athens’ foodie culture.
“I think it’s a dietary niche that is only going to get bigger as people become more and more concerned about food safety and sustainability,” Brown said.