Downstairs in the kitchen of the new Native Foods Cafe, Jackie Perez preps the meat and sauerkraut for a Reuben sandwich. It's 11:45 a.m., 30 minutes before the two-hour lunch rush will start, bringing in hundreds of hungry businessmen and women from around Dupont Circle.
Perez, the restaurant's national kitchen trainer, is surrounded by a dozen other employees who are topping cheeseburgers with bacon, tossing salads and plating sweet potato fries.
"It's amazing, you have to try it," Perez says of the Reuben, a best seller on the cafe's menu. The Native Foods version of the classic American bar sandwich is missing a key ingredient, though: in place of corned beef, slices of rye bread are piled with spiced seitan, a wheat-based protein made by combining gluten flour, spices and stock or water and then simmering the mixture to remove as much starch as possible. Native Foods goes one step further by adding beet juice to the mixture so the seitan, sliced deli-style, takes on the red coloring of the meat it mimics.
Everything on Native Foods Cafe's menu is vegan. The fast-casual chain is expanding across the country, capitalizing on Americans' growing enthusiasm to make more conscious choices about their food and converting meat lovers to what's been known as a hippie food movement by vegan-izing American classics such as the bacon cheeseburger and mac and cheese. The Washington store is the chain's 22nd and the first on the East Coast; it will soon be followed by another location in D.C.'s Penn Quarter.
Co-owner Andrea McGinty proudly points out that most people who stop in for a bite to eat aren't vegan, rather people looking for "a better way to eat." She prefers referring to the cafe's fare as plant-based, finding that it's less of a turn-off when explaining the concept to newbies.
"Native Foods serves fun comfort food that happens to be vegan," says McGinty, who is based in Chicago. McGinty and her business partner, Daniel Dolan, bought Native Foods from the company's founder in 2009. At the time there were just three restaurants, including the one in Palm Springs, Calif., where McGinty first discovered the cafe while on vacation 14 years ago.
"There was still a stigma on this word vegan," she says. "I thought, this could be so much fun to do. Every time I introduced it to anybody, they loved the food."
She took on the restaurant with hopes of expanding and a conviction that vegan food could become mainstream. Her timing may have put the business in prime position to succeed. She took the business outside California with a store in Chicago that opened in 2011; McGinty wants to have 200 stores in the next two years. Meanwhile, Americans are adopting all manner of specialty diets, nixing gluten, going vegetarian on weeknights, seeking alternative forms of protein besides meat, and trying unfamiliar vegetables like kale and grains such as farro.
A 2011 report by The Hartman Group found that 6% of Millennials identify as vegetarians, compared to 5% of Gen X and Boomers combined, and 12% say they often opt for vegetarian meals, vs. 10% of Gen X and 5% of Boomers who say the same.
Caroline Smith, 25, and Elizabeth Barnes, 22, are at Native Foods Cafe for the first time for lunch, but Smith says the two have been checking out the menu online for the past week. She is a vegetarian, while Barnes says she is "95% vegetarian."
They're both excited that Native Foods has such a large selection of veggie-heavy meals. The menu includes starters, salads, "earth bowls" usually made with a base of quinoa or brown rice, wraps and sandwiches, and desserts.
"Some places it's cucumbers on white bread with cheese or something and that's it," Barnes says of the vegetarian options she finds at other restaurants.
Native Foods serves dishes with vegan proteins including tofu, seitan and tempeh, which is made with soybeans and millet. The seitan and tempeh are made from scratch daily in Native Foods' kitchens. The cafe displays signs explaining each protein so customers understand what goes into the dishes.
There may be a learning curve, and new vocabulary, to veganism, but that hasn't affected the flow of customers into the restaurant. Since opening Sept. 30, Native Foods in D.C. has been averaging 600 customers a day, 50% more people than the average Native Foods nationally.
"I think people are attracted to this concept because the food tastes good," McGinty says, adding that at Native Foods people can still eat their favorite foods without the usual guilt or gluttony associated with fast food. "We want to change the way America eats, one restaurant at a time."
image courtesy: cnbc.com