MeeT’s Jason Antony on selling vegan food to non-vegans
Plus, why Main Street has become a vegetarian paradise
January 26, 2016
Many view vegetarianism—let alone veganism—as a difficult lifestyle choice, a sacrifice one must make for their own noble reasons. If there’s one thing Jason Antony, co-owner of vegan comfort food restaurant MeeT on Main, wants to change, it’s that perception. Antony, whose second location MeeT in Gastown will be opening in February, says he’d rather tempt than guilt people toward vegetarianism (he’s been vegan 12 years). So far, he’s done an undeniably good job. MeeT on Main has been a hit both with locals and those willing to make the trek to Main St. and 27th Ave. Over a year after opening in 2014, the Main Street location is still bumping. Now Antony is going to find out if a vegetarian restaurant can compete in what’s arguably the best-served food neighbourhood in town.
MeeT on Main has been a hit—and not just with vegetarians. What’s key to mainstream success for a vegetarian restaurant?
We don’t put a big vegetarian banner on the door. We believe that great food doesn’t have to have animals in it, and a lot of times people judge vegetarian restaurants and vegan restaurants with an unfair angle. I grew up in an area where if you have to offer people a vegan apple or a normal apple, they’ll never take the vegan apple, and you face that a little bit when people perceive vegetarian or vegan restaurants the way they do. It’s important for us to just be a restaurant with great food.
Any plans to expand with a third location and beyond?
We would like to open other places to make vegetarian food more accessible. We’ll have to see how Gastown goes. If we’re meant to grow, we will continue to grow this business. We’re dedicated to having there be more spaces like this. And if MeeT is the one we’re supposed to do that with, then we will. We’re very open to the idea of opening more locations. But we’re also open to quick-serve versions as well.
Such ambition may not have been as realistic a decade or two ago. How has the vegetarian scene changed in recent years?
It’s better now. Even five years ago, for the size of this city, unless you were in the right part of town, finding a vegetarian meal that you wanted to have, that you were excited about—it wasn’t as easy.
I’m really excited where things have come. It’s a good city to eat out in compared to many cities, especially per capita. There are a lot of choices for people here if you want veg options, especially where you don’t have to go and just get the pasta that happens to have a red sauce or the plate with cut veggies on it. It’s beyond that now, where you can actually have a really enjoyable meal. You don’t have three heads when you’re vegan any longer. It’s in mainstream consciousness. People get it. It’s not like that everywhere in Canada. Living in Vancouver, you lose that perspective, feeling that people have an understanding of vegetarianism. They don’t everywhere. We’re very fortunate that most people here do.
A lot of that change has happened around Main Street. Not only is your location there, but so is The Acorn, The Foundation, The Wallflower (vegetarian-friendly). And a few blocks away on Fraser Street you have The Black Lodge and Graze, which closed recently. At least half the vegetarian restaurants I can think of are within walking distance of one another. Why is this?
There is a concentration there. On the west side, The Naam would be the focal point of vegetarian eating, but there are a lot of vegetarian-friendly options (like East is East) on the west side. But when it comes to pure vegetarianism, there aren’t. Who can afford opening up an experimental restaurant on W. 4th, or on Robson, or any of these higher rent locations? It’s really difficult to do that, not because there isn’t a demand for the product, but it’s a still niche market. It still represents a percentage of an audience. So vegetarian restaurants end up coming to secondary locations that have better rent but still have an audience around them and a local community, and that’s what we found on Main Street. We’ve been really well supported by the community, and it’s been a great experience. And Gastown will be a bit of a new one for us. Has our concept gotten to the point where the average officer worker in Gastown will want to come to us for lunch compared to their other choices? We don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. But there’s buzz around the area. It seems that two things have happened. One, vegetarianism has grown, and two, I think people have really opened up to what we’re doing.
You mentioned The Naam, which is extremely popular with non-vegetarians as well. You could say the same about MeeT on Main. Is that critical for vegetarian restaurants to succeed: mass appeal?
I feel to have mainstream success, you need to have a place that can appeal to a wider audience, but I do believe that we’re also a time where a more niche vegetarian restaurant could thrive as well.
My personal motivation is different. There’s myself, my partner, and my wife, and we all have a slightly different bent on this. I really feel the power of making change through food. I would love for people to have a meat-free option and feel no compromise. Some of the people that I’ve grown up with, for them, that wouldn’t be an easy thing if it was a traditional raw vegan restaurant. Those types of establishments really limit your audience to people who are really focused on health. They want a very specific experience. Whereas our food is comfort-oriented, and it’s accessible to people who have vegetarians and non-vegetarians in their group.
We’re at a really interesting time. I’m excited to see a shift in this area and see what I can do to help make it possible. I see us as a transitional space for people, and that’s a really important thing for me—a big part of my own mandate anyway.