Eight years ago, in the noisy West Hollywood parking lot of the legendary Roxy Theatre, history was in the making. But it wasn’t a soon-to-be-stadium rock band making its Los Angeles debut; it was the first installation of the Vegan Beer Festival, now a rock star in its own right, better known these days as the Eat Drink Vegan festival.
What started with a handful of beer vendors and a few food trucks has morphed into a destination event for vegans and omnivores as well as beer lovers (and there are plenty of non-beer alternatives). Next weekend, the festival will take over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, with more than one hundred food vendors, ninety breweries, dozens of kombucha brews, wines, and cold brew coffees, and a fifty-vendor deep lifestyle pop-up shop all promoting veganism.
Co-founder Nic Adler says the festival’s growth mirrors the booming vegan scene in LA, which was just named the most vegan friendly city in the U.S. by VegNews.
“When we first started, it was a beer festival and a few food booths,” says Adler. But the food “really took off” after Adler invited local staple vegan restaurants including Doomie’s, Sage, and Café Gratitude to the event. Coupled with the rising popularity of Instagram, people were seeing the drool-worthy food and drink photos and the event became a legit vegan destination, creating in its wake a vegan festival scene in LA no other city has even come close to replicating.
“I think we stopped talking about it and just let the pictures speak for themselves,” Adler says of the festival’s eclectic food and drinks, and the good vibes.
Vegan food, once, and often still, written off as a deprivation diet of steamed vegetables and brown rice is one of the hottest food trends today, especially on Instagram. The festival partners with Instagram influencers for a combined reach of more than 4 million followers that help drive ticket sales and interest in the vendors long after the event wraps up.
“By always using Instagram as base for promotion we’ve really created this community there that transfers well to real life,” says Adler.
This year’s event features several vendors without a daily Los Angeles presence (yet), like Portland’s Sizzle Pie and New York’s Chickpea & Olive, which Adler says is the same as bringing in talent (like musicians). “You’ve got to fly them in, get them set up and supported, just like a band.”
Just like the fashion world is now pivoting away from the traditional runway shows in New York and Paris for pop-up shows in LA’s (usually) perfect weather, the food industry is showing the same interest in the market. Whether it’s a pop-up restaurant or an exclusive booth at a festival like EDV, there’s mutual interest from the brands and the locals in bringing the best of the vegan world to LA.
Of course, it’s also an extremely popular event for local businesses, too.
“When we started participating, there weren't any vegan donuts in LA,” says Josh Levine, founder of San Francisco-based Donut Farm, which now operates a Los Angeles location in Silver Lake, the city’s vegan epicenter. “[It] had already been years of people asking us to bring our donuts down there, and we love sharing what we do! We love letting people know about the importance of organic food, and why a vegan diet makes a difference.”
Despite the brand and attendee interest in the festival (Adler expects more than 8,000 people this year), less than four percent of the total (U.S.) population is vegetarian, and an estimated half-percent of that is vegan. But you wouldn’t know that based on the interest and social buzz EDV and other vegan festivals garner.
“Being vegan has come a long way, but it's still not easy,” says Mikey McKennedy, co-founder of Sizzle Pie. “It's ignored by many restaurant menus or at best just an afterthought. There's a community that forms because of that.”
In fact, it’s that word “vegan” that Adler says is the festival’s Achilles heel. That longstanding misconception that vegan food tastes bad, that it’s a sacrifice -- bland, boring food swallowed down bitterly by aggressive animal rights activists in between splashing people in fur coats with red paint. Veganism as a movement may still have an image problem, but thanks to social media and the family of influencers, it’s beautiful images that may be the solution to remedying that.
As a semi-sleep-deprived dad just recently for the second time and a festival producer (Adler also books the food vendors for Coachella), Adler’s enthusiasm isn’t compromised. It’s actually quite infectious as he describes the event with a joyful buoyancy. “We transport you into a vegan Disneyland,” says the longtime vegan. “But it’s not just for vegans -– you bring your five friends. You give anybody some beer and a couple of donuts and they’re like ‘aw man, I can be vegan.’”
“I feel like it’s a natural inevitability with the growing popularity of veganism that we would celebrate and promote what we all do,” says Levine. “And people, including myself, every year are exposed to new things and get to taste new things”
Adler agrees. “I think most food festivals or beer fests attract a different kind of crowd,” he says. Eat Drink Vegan brings in a core millennial crowd, and about three girls to every guy. “It makes for a very ‘no bros’ vibe,” he says. “It’s almost like this love fest, and we’re all so proud of each other, like music breaking out and getting on the radio. We make each other better.”
The food and beer are deliciously motivating, but the event is also a platform for discussing the benefits of the vegan diet, diving into that blur between the gorgeous photos of delicious vegan food and the not-so-gorgeous realities of factory farming and its impact.
“Honestly, our goal is to get people thinking about ingredients,” says Levine. “Organic palm shortening saves lives and habitats, so that’s all we'll use even though it costs more to buy. Organic and fair trade chocolate is important because it’s not contributing to slavery in third world countries. Saving animals and not contributing to human suffering is where we can make a difference in what foods we buy,” he says.
Levine’s observation mirrors the growing trends in the food industry.
The made-up bucolic farm imagery often found on milk cartons to hide the reality that it was produced in a dark, dank factory farm by cows tethered, drugged, and beaten, is a sales tool of industries moving into extinction. With millennials now steering the market, they’re spending more money on high-quality food than on clothing, a shift away from shopping habits of previous generations. They’re cooking at home more often and seeking cleaner, fresher, and more exciting ingredients. They’re also more likely to gravitate toward businesses that value transparency. Companies selling vegan food and products are quick to discuss their ingredients, how they’re sourced, produced, and the impacts they’re not having on the planet – as in not creating as many greenhouse gases as livestock production, not putting as much pressure on natural resources, and, of course, not contributing to the widespread animal suffering inherent in raising animals for food.
“I think the future will see vegan food become [a bigger] necessity,” says Gary Huerta, Partner of Cena Vegan, a Latin American inspired food truck.
“The positive result is companies like ours are poised to deliver high-quality products that are healthy, delicious, and seen as a preferred choice, not a compromise.”
That choice was once seen as strictly a sacrifice for ethics, but veganism is now regarded as not just a sustainable choice, but also the healthiest diet choice by the world’s leading doctors, scientists, and nutritionists. Late last year the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of nutritionists, came out in support of veganism as a diet appropriate for “every stage of the life cycle.”
“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases,” the group wrote in its announcement last December.
But while vegan popularity grows, it’s the Meatless Mondays and other “flexitarian” omnivorous diets that are the biggest drivers of the plant-based category growth. (I did a Google search and “vegan” gets 344 million search results compared to “paleo,” the popular heavily animal-based diet, which clocks in at just 85 million.) Nondairy milks lead the advance with brands seeing triple-digit sales spikes while conventional dairy sales are flat or on the decline (with the exception of organic and grass-fed dairy, which is also on the increase, signaling consumer interest in more humane animal products). But innovation is happening in all categories, from meats and milks to cheese, butter, and even vegan eggs.
"Innovative products are appearing in new markets every day," says Danielle Ricciardi, co-founder and CEO of Chickpea & Olive, making its EDV debut this year, "being vegan is easy, accessible, and state of the art."
About the time EDV kicked off in 2010, vegan food just started to begin to reap its long overdue mainstream acceptance.
"Even six years ago, people used to sneer and cross the street when they saw the word 'vegan' on our menu, or assume it was all bland tofu (for the record, we are now selling tofu, we are bringing it to EDV, and we swear it tastes like chicken)," says Ricciardi. "Those days are long gone. Modern vegan businesses are leading the innovation in every field they compete in. Most of our customers are not even vegetarian, but we capture their attention with delicious food. Consumers can unwittingly make compassionate choices, and in the process become excited for similar experiences."
Chef Wes Lieberher, Executive Chef of Beer Belly, a bar and restaurant in LA's Koreatown that’s begun serving more vegan options, says the festival is a great way to not only showcase its vegan offerings, but to find inspiration as well. Lieberher has been eating a plant-based diet himself for the last six months and says it has been an “eye-opening experience.”
His recent foray is an example of what's happening all around the country as people start experimenting with reducing their consumption of animal products.
“If Cena Vegan, and other companies like us can get carnivores to start substituting our products for meat, even if it’s one or two times a week, we’ll have an immediate and positive impact on their health and the welfare of the planet,” says Huerta. “And if we convert some of those to a vegan way of life, we all win even bigger.”
“It is so exciting to be a part of this industry and to bring a clean and tasty product to the public,” says Melissa Schulman, founder of Yoga-urt, a vegan and organic frozen yogurt shop in Glendale.
"Together, we vegan food producers are pioneering a category of cuisine that is sustainable, one that people will be eating for a long time to come," says Charles Fyffe, CEO and founder of Charlie's Brownies. "Compassion and sustainability is the way of the future. The passion behind why we make food this way drives us not only to make it taste and look as good, but even better than the original non-vegan versions we grew up with. Seeing the movement grow as we do, and become more widespread and popular is probably the most exciting part of it all."
For Ricciardi, it's all about the consciousness shift, which she says is happening globally.
"People are learning how food is grown, treated, and raised. They are learning that they don’t need animal proteins to be healthy or get protein. The health myths are being busted and the environmental benefits to plant based diets are too great to be ignored," she says.
Nakul and Arjun Mahendro of Badmaash, an Indian gastropub in downtown LA that isn’t entirely vegan, say its whole food and vegetable-based dishes are in higher and higher demand these days. “The world is changing, people are not blindfolded anymore, we are all 'waking up' and realizing that there’s something wrong with the way we're eating.”
“People think being a vegan is a huge inconvenience,” say first time festival vendors Staci Stewart and Chris Chavez, co-founder of the vegan Word of Mouth Truck. “They don't want to give up foods that they were raised on, or they think vegan food is weird and gross, which couldn't be farther from the truth.”
Stewart and Chavez say a lot of it has to do with willful ignorance about our food system. “Most consumers don't want to know or are unaware of the impacts eating meat has on the environment, the unspeakable animal cruelty that takes place, and not to mention how it effects their health.”
“I think we address the problem by educating and listening to one another. It's easy to shut out people who disagree with you, the challenge for both is in having an honest conversation about each other's point of view,” says Stewart and Chavez. “The more you can open someone's eyes will help to open their heart, and the evolution of one’s self is inevitable.”
“We’re beyond arguing whether our planet can support a carnivorous diet – it can’t,” says Huerta.
Without stages full of bands like Coachella, it’s the forward-thinking vendors who are the rock stars at Eat Drink Vegan. Each brings not just their own unique foods, drinks, and products, but, like the greatest of rock stars, their own creative invitation to reflect, to contemplate. In this case it's a call to look at just how deep our food and lifestyle choices really go. And at this vegan event at least, it is no longer about focusing on the atrocities of animal suffering, but looking at the celebration that it now can be so easily, and deliciously avoided. That a longstanding vegan festival of this magnitude exists is a victory in and of itself worthy of revel.
"There’s a really cool culture happening around this. It’s this ecosystem that everyone is talking about," says Adler.
“People want to be a part of that.”
The Eat Drink Vegan festival comes to the Pasadena Rose Bowl Saturday May 27th. Tickets are available here.
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