Are Angelenos Turning Their Backs On Plant-Based Eating?
My favorite sandwich in all of Los Angeles is a Reuben.
The pickle and slaw-stuffed wonder from Mendocino Farms, smothered in Thousand Island spread made with plant-based corned beef, was the stuff yummy vegan dreams are made of. It came to be a dependable, delicious staple of mine through those tumultuous months fueled by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Imagine my horror when earlier this year, Mendocino Farms removed my beloved sandwich from their menu. Trying to play it cool and mask my despair, I asked the cashier why.
“It just wasn’t as popular as the meat options,” she said casually.
Not long afterward, Northeast L.A.-based Burgerlords announced it would bring back beef burgers at its Chinatown location. On Instagram the restaurant said the all-vegan menu was “unsustainable” and caused their sales to drop by half. You can probably imagine the explosive reaction to that post. (Sample comment: “Can’t believe this place supports animal abuse now. Never going back.”)
But from where owner Frederick Guerrero is sitting, the online fury doesn’t reflect reality. Burgerlords’ stand in Chinatown was fully vegan for three years, between 2020 and 2023, having previously served meat since it opened in 2015. “And every day people were walking up to the window for three years saying, ‘You guys don’t serve meat anymore? OK I’m good, I’m good’,” says Guerrero. The staff sometimes even offered free vegan burgers — but customers still said no. “I can’t afford to be turning away that business.”
Where's plant-based beef?
The Chinatown location now serves both meat and vegan options (the Highland Park Burgerlords still maintains an all-vegan menu).
“I just feel like we’ve gone through a lot over the past few years and my responsibility is to keep the business open and this is the best way for us to do that," Guerrero said. It wasn’t an easy decision for Guerrero, who’s been vegetarian since he was 8.
“You have a lot more opportunity the more diverse your menu is," he said. "So if we serve beef and vegan food, we can get people who eat beef and vegan food, but if it’s only vegan, we’re finding that people who eat beef are not going to eat vegan food.”
Guerrero says especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, people don’t want to take as many risks with what they eat. They want comfort food that’s familiar — and he thinks that is meat.
Meat sales in grocery stores did see a spike at the start of the pandemic. Then the Financial Times reported that U.S. sales of plant-based meat actually fell slightly in 2021. As a vegetarian, it was surprising to see. In previous years it somehow seemed like everyone was going plant-based: Vegan spots were popping up all over the city, and the hype around meat alternatives seemed endless. But was I just living in a veggie-Reuben bubble?
The question remains: Are Angelenos now turning their backs on plant-based lifestyles?
“I have this term I tell my staff,” says Guerrero. “It’s like, 'we’ve been 'green-pilled.' We’ve been so marketed to that ‘plant-based is the future, blah, blah, blah'. But the reality is, that’s still a very small percentage of the way people eat. I think it will get there, I want it to get there. But I think it’s really far out.”
It seems the number of vegans in the U.S. hasn’t increased much over the years. In a 2018 Gallup poll, just 3% of Americans said they were vegan — up from 2% in 2012. A 2022 survey of a similar size found that just 4% were vegan.
“I think there’s a natural kind of growth and pause, growth and pause,” says Nic Adler, co-founder of the plant-based Nic’s on Beverly and Monty’s Good Burger, which uses Impossible beef patties. He points to 2017 to 2019 as years of big growth, “but I do feel like [in] 2020, late 2021 and most of 2022, we took a bunch of steps backwards in this space.”
Adler thinks there are a few factors to blame — a lack of tourists, rising food costs, even the recent bad weather.
“I’m not a conspiracy person, but I do think there was a concerted effort by the meat industry to go after Impossible and Beyond," Adler said. "I believe they focused on the word 'fake.' Nobody wants anything fake in their life — they don’t want fake relationships and they definitely don’t want fake food. I think that [word] has been really effective for the push against the plant-based protein alternatives. And I believe that’s had a spillover effect to plant-based in general.”
“The pushback on Impossible and Beyond hasn’t been good for Monty’s,” he adds.
Adler also believes that due to the pandemic, many L.A. diners aren’t as willing to discover new types of foods — and that’s an important aspect for trying new restaurants with plant-based spots.
“These restaurants don’t survive on a plant-based clientele. Maybe 20% of the people who go to Nic’s are vegan 100% of the time. It’s a lot of flexitarians and people discovering new food,” he said.
The folks behind Maciel’s Plant-based Butcher think that diners are less divided than they once were.
“It seems like a switch flipped in the last two or three years,” says Joe Egender, who owns Maciel’s with his wife, Maciel Bañales Luna. “There isn’t this separation between veganism and the rest of humanity.”
Maciel’s all-vegan deli in Highland Park sells house-made "meats" like Mexican ribs and Italian-herbed turkey, along with sandwiches including the turkey, bacon and avocado on seven-grain bread, or their tasty, Mendo-rivaling Reuben on rye.
Maciel’s also supplies a number of local restaurants that serve both meat and vegan dishes, including à bloc, which uses Maciel’s bacon on its vegan breakfast sandwich, and MacLeod Ale Brewing, which uses its plant-based pepperoni as a vegan option for their pizza.
Egender and Bañales Luna are finding that people want to eat less meat but are concerned about the level of processed additives present in some plant-based options.
“[People say] ‘I’m confused. I hear it’s bad. I hear soy causes men to grow boobs’,” says Egender. “It was exciting for us because then you see the door opening. It’s a matter of filling that space with correct information, with science — but also with deliciousness.”
Everything at Maciel’s is made in-house from whole ingredients like chickpeas and beets, with zero additives. Their website features detailed nutritional information, including a full list of ingredients for each meat, and references to information about seitan and soy.
“My background is in nutrition,” says Bañales Luna. “So I put a lot of effort into creating quality meats. I’m always thinking about the amount of protein and fiber. Yes it’s delicious, but it’s also good for you.”
Mad for delicious tacos
Using vegetables and minimal processing is also a priority for Mexican pop-up Evil Cooks.
“I was vegan for almost three years,” says owner/CEO Alex Garcia. “It was really hard to find a good option. It was just beans, rice, Doritos — I was tired of that.”
Garcia and his partner Elvia Huerta currently offer two menus — the "Hell" menu, where they are dishing up octopus tacos and black pastor tortas — and the "Heaven" menu featuring an array of vegan and vegetarian options to choose from. The star of the show is a vegan green chorizo, which won this year’s Vegan Taco Madness, hosted by L.A. Taco.
“It’s made with herbs, with spinach, cilantro, and watercress,” says Garcia. “It has a lot of love in it, a lot of flavor — and it helps your gut. We’re really proud of it — it’s like our baby.”
While restaurants themselves try to find a balance when it comes to offering meat and non-meat options, it begs the question: What do L.A. diners think?
What's next for vegan dining?
Nicolle Galteland, 34, an audio producer living in Hollywood who’s been vegetarian for four years and mostly avoids dairy as well, is “fascinated and terrified” by the idea of vegan options decreasing.
“We’ve only lived in LA for 1.5 years and I hadn’t [previously] really noticed a drop but now the coffee shop next door doesn’t serve our favorite vegan sandwich anymore and Panda Express just got rid of the Impossible orange chicken,” she said.
She does wish that the city had more all-vegan spots.
“They’re a big draw because it’s just so delightful to be able to order anything on the menu. I also love good mixed-audience spots for going out with friends and family who just can’t imagine having a meal without meat," she said. "Some folks in my life will flatly refuse to try vegetarian dishes and having a spot that caters to all of us is certainly better than a spot where French fries are my only option for dinner.”
Tori Daniels, 39, director of product management at The HydraFacial Company in Santa Monica, eats meat but considers her approach to eating plant-based in that “vegetables take up the majority of the real estate on my plate. I’d love to see more restaurants offer vegan dishes of the same caliber as the non-vegan dishes,” she says. “Vegan dishes seem to be more of an afterthought at restaurants that predominantly serve meat. It allows them to just check the box for their plant-based clientele.”
Daniels says she would be open to trying vegan alternatives to meals like tacos or curries, but dishes designed around meat, like beef stroganoff or chicken pot pie, aren’t as appealing: “I’m generally not interested in dishes that use processed meat substitutes.”
Her husband, attorney Adam Daniels, 40, is now a meat eater, having previously maintained a vegan diet for several years.
"My favorite non-vegan dishes are steak, Korean BBQ, sushi, chicken parmesan,” he says, “and I wouldn’t order plant-based versions of these dishes because I haven’t been impressed with the various vegan meat substitutes available today.”
Caitlin Dawson, 37, who works at USC and lives in Mount Washington, has been vegan for six years.
“We lost a few vegan restaurants, but a few new spots have opened, so it feels about the same,” she says. “Some previously vegan/vegetarian places like Elf have pivoted to omnivore menus. I think this is a challenging time for restaurants, and I can understand why they want to cater to as many people as possible (not simply vegan only). I would really love more restaurants catering to both — often, there is really only one vegan option on the menu at best.”
As for whether plant-based eating is on the decline, Monty’s Nic Adler is clear that while there has been a dip, “plant-based is not dead, and it’s not going away. We’re only at the beginning of where this is going to end up.”
Egender at Maciel’s references the difficulty of owning a restaurant right now in Los Angeles, from the costs of labor and goods to inflation.
“We’re more afraid of that than of people reversing course and going back to being heavy meat-eaters. It isn’t clear that everybody wants to be a vegan or vegetarian, but it is clear that people want to eat less meat.”
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