In 2016, Gavin Fernback went vegan. Like many people making the switch to a plant-based diet, the decision yielded profound results—not just for his health, but his worldview, too. Gavin’s decision, though, didn’t just impact his own life. He’s the owner of The Fields Beneath, a coffee shop located in a residential neighborhood in London, serving 200-300 people every day.
The Fields Beneath had been open for nearly four years when Gavin stopped eating animals; it had a following and a mostly non-vegan menu.
“[I]t was only a matter of time before I could no longer slap slices of ham and cheese down on slices of bread, he says. “So, in October that year I committed myself to making the cafe vegan. If it didn’t work, I’d sell up/close down and find something else.”
But it worked.
The café began to serve vegan croissants, breakfast pots (porridge, granola, muesli, chia seeds etc…), “we make amazing hot dishes,” Gavin says of the tagines, curries, even burgers. After several years, the only thing not vegan on the menu was milk—a staple for many coffee drinkers. That’s all changing in a few days, when the café will officially replace all cow’s milk with plant-based milks like oat, almond, and soy.
“[Half of] our sales are from coffee,” Gavin says, “so the milk thing was always going to be the last to go for us, and the one that brought a little concern.” But with signage that went viral on Instagram and earnest conversations with his customers, Gavin thinks the transition will be smooth even for his non-vegan customers.
“We’re talking to them as much as possible," Gavin says. "Very few have challenged it, although one has gone as far as to buy his own espresso machine so he can make milky coffees himself from Sunday.”
As sales of plant-based foods continue to rise and dairy and beef sales continue on a steep decline, the industry is rapidly changing. Restaurants are offering more plant-based options than ever before; Starbucks also just announced the addition of vegan items to its menu. Supermarkets are no longer segregating out plant-based food, but finding homes for them next to meat and dairy products.
Last year, El Segundo, Calif. based Beyond Meat gave Whole Foods Market a deal it couldn't pass up: an exclusive launch on Beyond Meat's pea-protein-based Beyond Burger, but only if it would merchandise it next to the meat counter. The nearly indistinguishable from beef product was a huge hit with vegans and omnivores alike. The brand got the attention of Tyson Foods, the largest producer of beef, chicken, and pork products in the world, which invested into Beyond Meat for a five percent stake in the business.
“Plant-based proteins are definitely a critical part of the food system moving forward,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown told Organic Authority in a recent interview. “We think they’re the future of protein.”
Elmhurst Dairy, a 90-year-old dairy producer out of Queens, New York, has reinvented itself—not necessarily out of a vegan ethos, but out of sheer necessity. The brand, now going by simply "Elmhurst", debuted a line of vegan nut milks earlier this month at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif. It stopped producing dairy milk last year.
In the 1980s, Elmhurst, like other dairy producers in New York, took a hit after a federal court deregulated milk sales, which led to price wars throughout the region.
“That was the beginning of the end,” CEO Henry Schwartz, who ran the family dairy business, told the New York Times last August. Elmhurst Dairy scored a deal with Starbucks in 2003, but that ended in 2011, and from there it seemed its days were numbered as the company kept taking losses from rising production costs and declining dairy sales—but as the last dairy in New York City, it held on as long as it could. Last October, Elmhurst Dairy found new homes for its cows and prepared to shut its doors for good.
And then, a revelation. If you can’t beat ‘em, then Elmhurst was ready and raring to join ‘em—stepping into the $1.4 billion plant-based milk industry with four delicious varieties: almond, cashew, hazelnut, and the surprisingly outstanding walnut milk.
The brand’s sleek cartons bear its history—simple cursive lettering hardly seen on today’s sans-serif-obsessed styling, and a stamp that reads “Est. 1925,” which is when it began selling cow’s milk throughout the city.
"With the help of award-winning culinary innovator Cheryl Mitchell, Ph.D., Schwartz now applies his knowledge about the process of dairy-making to create creamy plant-based milks that use four times more nuts per serving in their formulation than competing brands," reports VegNews.
While the shift from cow to walnut is certainly significant from a production standpoint, the rest is second nature for Elmhurst. Milk is milk, after all, even if the dairy industry is contesting that issue; and today many customers love to experiment with different milks—even enjoying regularly switching between cow and nondairy milks.
There's no telling what the future holds for Elmhurt 2.0, but the brand is off to a strong start with placement in more than 1,100 Publix supermarkets across the Southeast next month, and a warm reception at the Natural Products Expo where the nondairy milk category was among the show’s top trends.
For The Fields Beneath, the café has become more than just a coffee shop—it’s taking the opportunity to embrace veganism and talk about the state of our food industry, our health, the planet, and the plight of factory farmed animals.
“I think you can’t deny the logic of veganism,” Gavin says, “but there’s a lot in between that logic and any of us making the choice to become vegan." And for the sake of a glass of milk or a steak, he says, "we don’t need to kill cows.”
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