More vegan dining options are sprouting up in Asheville

VeganVille may not have the same broad appeal as Beer City and Foodtopia — two of the sexier food and beverage branding monikers that help lure visitors to Asheville — but landing the No. 1 spot on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ list of Top Ten Vegan-Friendly Towns and Small Cities in America is not small potatoes.

The top billing is good news but not breaking news to Asheville-area food professionals. Chefs and restaurant owners whose menus support plant-based choices have witnessed a steady increase in interest and responded in kind.

“Asheville doesn’t have a whole lot of 100{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} vegan places,” says chef Hayette Bouras, co-owner of Sunflower Diner, which went 100{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} vegan on its first anniversary in October. “But you can go almost anywhere in town and have legit, vegan options beyond french fries and a side salad. Most of the time, the staff is educated on what vegan is.”

Farmer and chef Chris Sharpe, owner of Eden-Out Organic Meals, believes Asheville earns its vegan-friendliness naturally and honestly, citing the region’s alternative community of people who embrace a wide range of eating habits. “There is a large vegan population here that is very vocal,” he points out. “That drives our restaurants to offer a diversity of vegan options.”

To your health

Sharpe came to veganism via farming and stayed for the health benefits. As a kid, he says, he ate whatever was on his plate, then became vegetarian-pescatarian in young adulthood. When he started working on a local organic farm about a decade ago, he segued to vegan.

“I had free access to an abundance of vegetables that I helped grow and started eating that food to save money, then pretty much ate vegetables all the time,” explains Sharpe. “The daily access to such fresh food allowed me to see the value of it on my health. I felt better.”

In 2014, he purchased organic and vegan prepared meal delivery service Eden-Out from founder William Najger. He soon began supplementing the local produce he purchases for his weekly menus with foods he forages and “veganically” grows (he eschews animal byproducts in fertilizer) on his small Gnome Town Farm in Weaverville.

Health concerns also brought Jennifer Webster, manager of Green Sage Cafe on Hendersonville Road, to plant-based eating about a year and a half ago as she searched for natural solutions to her husband’s chronic pain. “He had been on over-the-counter pain medication for almost five years,” she says. “We decided to try nutrient-rich, pure food, and I started cooking vegan at home. After a few months, his pain was gone, and we both felt so much better. The food you put in your body has direct effects on how you feel.”

The personal conversion also led her to her job at Green Sage when the couple moved to Asheville from Detroit at the start of 2021 and she discovered the restaurant and its vegan-friendly menu. “[Green Sage is] not 100{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} vegan, and we do offer animal proteins,” she clarifies. “But we see more and more people interested in our vegan items, and almost everything on the menu has a vegan option.”

Seeds of change

Chef Reza Setayesh has long been committed to healthy eating, personally as well as professionally in the gluten- and sugar-free menu at BimBeriBon, the West Asheville restaurant he owns with his wife, Eva Setayesh. When the pandemic shuttered their dining room last spring, they began offering weekly Big Bountiful Bags featuring multicourse take-home meals of global cuisine.

Each Big Bountiful Bags menu offered a meat-free option, which proved more popular than the pair expected. As they prepared this year to wind down the take-home effort and reopen the restaurant, the Setayeshes decided to expand their recipe and lifestyle website, plantlovinghumans.com, which they launched in 2019, to include heat-and-eat meals.

“Through Big Bountiful Bags, we saw our customers every week going back and forth between animal protein and the plant-based option,” says Reza. “They wanted to feel better, eat better and be healthier, especially this past year, and more and more people were trying plants.”

Three months ago, under the Plant Loving Humans banner, the Setayeshes began offering two weekly choices of plant-based meals — recently featured were Indian lentil “meatballs” with curry and spring vegetable jambalaya. They sell out every week, says Reza, and will continue to be available when BimBeriBon reopens its dining room.

Plant Loving Humans has also added a line of sauces and condiments to help people build a vegan pantry for cooking at home, and plans are in the works for shipping the meals along with gluten-free breads and pastries from the BimBeriBon bakery.

Going all the way

When Bouras opened Sunflower Diner in October 2019 in the storefront corner of the West Village Market, she wanted to dive headlong into vegan breakfast and lunch, but market owner Rosanne Kiely asked that she keep some animal proteins for nonvegan clientele.

Over her first year of operations — transitioning to a takeout-only model in response to the pandemic — Bouras says Sunflower became known for its plant-based menu, vegan baked goods and creative, plant-based takes on traditional dishes. The Egg Mock Muffin, for example, stacks vegan JUST Egg, vegan sausage and vegan smoked provolone on gluten-free sourdough muffins from West End Bakery. There’s also a tempeh Reuben, and the recently added Sham and Cheese sandwich features house-made seitan marinated in brown sugar pineapple juice.

“The Sham and Cheese is killing it,” Bouras says with a laugh. “Creating a vegan menu is my joy source. It’s not difficult. There are way more vegetables out there than meat and much more opportunity to be creative.”

Sunflower’s customers follow a variety of dietary paths, says Bouras. “We get vegans, we get people who have heart trouble and have been prescribed the Esselstyn diet, and we get people who have no idea we’re vegan but see something on our menu that sounds delicious.”

Business, she adds, has increased significantly since Sunflower committed to a 100{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} vegan and organic menu, even prompting Kiely to add a case of vegan-only grocery items next to the café. “The evidence is overwhelming — it was the right decision,” says Bouras

Sharpe reports a steady yearly increase in customers since 2014.  And that growing interest in plant-based eating is encouraging, he notes, because he believes the ethical and environmental impacts of veganism are as important as the health benefits.

“I enjoy helping people transition to natural living and plant-based eating and into greater harmony with the world around us,” he says.