Written by Julién Godman
Top restaurant lists that the media push out, basically every week, are stupid. This isn’t a personal opinion, it’s a fact. They are purposely designed to elicit clicks and shares. And headlines that suggest that Detroit is one of the top vegan hotspots in the country aren’t any better. Detroit is by no means a national vegan, vegetarian or health-conscious hotspot. We, as a collective body are not holistic, we are not organic and we are not natural. It is true, on the fringes of society, within our metro, we display attributes of some of these characteristics, but that’s about it.
It is also true, that we have urban farms, hydroponic sprouts, community gardens, and a bunch of other holistic food sources. But by and large our food system is not what we may believe (or wish) it to be.
We are plastic.
Coining the concept right here and now – to be plastic, contrary to the urban dictionary, is a vague disposition of our entire social, environmental, medicinal and/or food systems, both holistically and/or individually, as birthed in, affected by or derived vis-à-vis manmade, artificial, industrial and processed creations of our own scientific divinity. This concept is loosely structured and can be used neutrally. This in mind, we’ve been plastic for a long time.
If one counted the vegan friendly establishments (before ever evaluating if the food is even good), we’d come up with a list so small it would most likely be dwarfed by establishments that sell burgers within a single zip-code. We don’t need to do a survey to visualize these statistics – just drive down any commercial district in Detroit. But these are just guesses. Want real numbers?
In 2015, a joint study and research article, led by Dorceta E. Taylor of the University of Michigan and Kerry Ard of Ohio State University published Food Availability and the Food Desert Frame in Detroit: An Overview of the City’s Food System. In this study, viewable by searching on ResearchGate, the two sociologists pulled numbers on just about every single aspect of the food landscape in the City of Detroit, including statistics on all businesses that supply full food service, plus bars. Their research concluded that we have 1,245 food establishments in the city.
In 2016, WDET 101.9FM mapped a Detroit Experience Factory resource that listed all the “restaurants, bars and cafes” in the Downtown area, back then it was 313 – a number that seems too ironic to be true. Today, the DXF numbers have bumped a bit, with 346 downtown and 345 in the neighborhoods.
So why do we have two entirely different set of numbers when surveying dining options? In 2015, one study reports 1,245 establishments and the other reports a total of 694.
The difference here isn’t just numeric, but rather the perception of eating out. It is important to note that the research done by Taylor & Ard includes 338 fast food restaurants. But even when this latter number is removed from the equation, we’re still looking at 907, compared to 694. Moreover, the removal of our 338 fast food spots isn’t really justified; these greasy no-wait locales are just as much part of the dining economy as everything else. In fact, in many neighborhoods of Detroit, unfavorable food swamps have been formed, inundated with countless fast food dining options, including a recent Metro Times (MT) recommended vegan hotspot #53 White Castle.
Yeah, that’s right MT listed White Castle’s black bean sliders on their list, which probably was included to be humorous, or perhaps to round out there listicle.
Monica Isaac, proprietor of Cairo Coffee in Eastern Market, shared her experiences:
“As someone who doesn’t eat much meat and has a vegan partner, I find our options to be lacking”
And perhaps suggestive of MT’s inclusion of White Castle on their list, she goes on to say:
“I read a couple “lists” that mentioned detroit as an exciting vegetarian destination and I was confused”
There is just no hiding the fact that Detroit is by-and-large greasy spoons and fast food chains. We are hot and ready. Our new $862.9M Little Caesars Arena, a brand that makes millions on a slimy cheese and meat smothered five dollar deal, is pictorial of our social non-vegan veracity.
Taylor & Ard vividly illustrate this picture of what our city looks like at large. For our case, the 1,245 figure is more appropriate, than the 694 sum.
So what do all these numbers have to do with vegan dining in Detroit? Well for one, these numbers are specifically within the city limits. Just about every vegan forward article on Detroit that has emerged in the last few years is actually talking about all of Southeast Michigan, Ann Arbor and Windsor included – an iffy combinative geographic area that has close to 5M people.
To take a good measurement, we need specific parameters that allow us to look at both individual sections, as well as the whole. Thus, our perspective here is specifically the City of Detroit, immediate peripheries and locales held within, including Hamtramck and Highland Park, with a combined estimated population of less than 715,000, as of 2016. This of course is by no means a slight to all of Southeast Michigan, which by all accounts has a growing number of vegan forward establishments.
It would be fair to assume that all these numbers are leading to an argument against vegan friendliness, based solely on quantity. But then again the article by the Metro Times doesn’t say that we have a large vegan scene but that the ‘scene’ is quality. As a defense in the name of quality, VegNews, PETA and Eater all seem to cite the same places, including a couple unnamed locations that have as few as one vegan option. But, MT’s article raises another question: Why structure the initial article in a quantity format, as a large count-down list, including over 70 places for meatless munching, and then later follow up with a hand selected list of 30 places? Why does Eater create a guide of 23 vegan or vegetarian restaurants, online trending aside, if not to suggest that we have a great number of veggie forward establishments?
What’s with all these damn lists?
In relation to veganism at-large in Detroit, Stevie Baka, had this tidbit:
“I’m very tired of salads”
Though to some, Baka’s feelings may impress an unfair viewpoint of our vegan restaurants – there is some real truth to the statement. First, the pool of vegan hotspots, regardless if they are good or not, is an incredibly small one. And just how many veganisitic places are in fact salad-centric? Many restaurants in the dining economy offer salads as their vegan options. Take for example a recently opened Detroit restaurant and bar downtown, the Rusted Crow, which has two vegan options that consist of brussel sprout salad or a greek salad sans feta.
In almost a poised response to Baka’s fair opinion, a local vegan advocate, Lauren Thomasson, had this to say:
“Detroit is no LA for vegan fare, that’s for sure, but there are so many gems and the scene is growing and changing all the time. I think we’ll continue to see more options here, as long as we continue pressuring restaurants, asking questions, educating each other”
Thomasson’s supportive and even encouraging sentiment on being vegan in Detroit does say one big thing. It’s a fight, nonviolent of course, but wrist shaking nonetheless. And if we wish to propel the dining scene towards a more accommodating veggie scheme we collectively must continue to educate and ask questions of each other and most importantly of those who claim to represent veganism. Moreover, her words in a way are a testament to this very article. We need to continue to pressure restaurants and the people in the position to influence a sustainable vegan model in our city, aka the media.
If we have a vegan gem in the city, why not do an in-depth profile that covers them specifically, and then makes a case on exactly what the restaurant is doing differently, or special, that qualifies them to be nationally recognized? When some out of town hot shots come in, like VegNews, or recently National Geographic, and make broad claims of quality, and publish pieces that use phrases like Best Of, why do our largest local media outlets jump on the bandwagon and cite them in justification of their own reiteration of the fact? Don’t we know good food from bad in our own backyard?
It seems not. In fact, it seems we, media included, have a collectively odd culinary fetish when some exotic out-of-towners use exploitative food journalism to charter their online trending charts. We eat it up.
Tracking back, and after careful evaluation of the MT’s compilation of 70 places, 40 were within our parameters, of which 36 were brick & mortar. To be honest, it goes without saying that many restaurants serve bad food. This in mind, we’re going to have to look at two sets of numbers. Conditionally formatted as a numeric range, the first one includes all 40 on their list (for those who disagree with the bad food comment) and the second stands at 24, after we remove at least 40% for quality control. Then add some vegan friendly popups, as well as a couple businesses, that were left out of the equation: Coffee And Blank, Dr Sushi, Sisters On A Roll, Noon + Namak, Bandhu Gardens, The Grim Feeder. We’ll just quote this number at 15 to be generous.
That puts us between 39 – 55 vegan establishments, respectively, and only 24 – 36 that actually keep regular hours. These figures, when compared to Detroit’s 1,245 dining establishments, within the city limits, illustrates that we are by no means a vegan friendly city.
The numbers may not support our vegan power, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t changing. We are indeed increasing our vegan options. But no, VegNews we are not one of the top vegan cities in the country. And incorrect, PETA, Detroit is not being taken over by vegan food. If anything is happening, we collectively are becoming more vegan conscious.
In regards to veganism as a dietary concept in general, Meiko Krishok, proprietor of Guerrilla Food, and operator of the weekly Pink Flamingo popups, had this to say:
“I can’t wait for vegan food to just be recognized as amazing, nourishing food, and not as some niche health trend.”
It seems all too often that we forget our own misconceptions about vegan food. Is it a “lifestyle” as the Metro Times quoted Detroit Vegan Soul co-owner Kristen Ussery Boyd saying, or is it a diet, or a social perspective, or humanitarian decision, or health-conscious trend, or is it just food?
Defining veganism seems to be the biggest misunderstanding. This confusion remains one that both befuddles and alienates the general public, as well as the media. Being vegan is often portrayed as a glamorous, almost painful, lifestyle of choice and privilege. There are plenty of local brands out there that connect the dots between veganism and a healthy lifestyle. Marketing words or brand descriptors like simple, clean or pure suggest if you don’t buy their product that you are perhaps consuming something that is dirty, complex or impure. This marketing platform, which most likely drives sales, doesn’t really make veganism an approachable or inclusive concept.
Places like Detroit Vegan Soul, are in fact changing the veggie game here in Detroit. But they aren’t changing it solely through what they’re serving up but by their approachability. Their brand is pretty humble, they rep Detroit with love and care as a community and not just a dollar sign – they have a narrative we’d all like to support because it supports us.
Beyond dining out, if one buys into the “industry”, purchasing vegan products and vegan processed foods can be expensive. Go check out the prices of meat substitutes at your local Whole Foods, or calculate the cost of all the ingredients in a vegan cacao avocado super-food smoothie.
Mary Isaac, in relation to how veganism is viewed by the public, had this to share:
“. . . Americana and meat are supposed to appeal to the blue-collar everyman and vegan is inherently bougie. So veg options are added to menus as afterthoughts and substitutions for those of us pests you just had to bring with you. . .”
But being vegan doesn’t have to be an unattainable, elite lifestyle. It can be as cheap as the effort it takes to tend a garden, it can be as thrifty as foraging baby milkweed pods, or as easy as ordering up a $3.49 falafel sandwich at Boostan Café in Hamtramck, or as practical as using EBT at Eastern Market, or even as accessible as following shared recipes on the Facebook group Detroit Vegans.
Fortunately, there is in fact a growing movement, that isn’t just Detroit-centric, but rather national. We are all becoming slightly more food aware, slightly more dietary accommodating, and slightly more holistically minded when evaluating our food systems. Beyond the assessments above, it is really great to see places like Dillas Donuts, Pie-Sci and Treat Dreams offer vegan products that aren’t traditionally vegan accessible.
Ingenuity is something that Detroiters have. It is entirely within reason that we have the potential of leading the vegan scene in the United States. But listicles are just bad journalism, and ultimately cut short our culinary prowess.
There are amazing narratives in the city that ought to be written about. There are stories of testament and survival, within the vegan context, illuminated by real accounts like cook and proprietor of Sisters On A Roll, Harriette Brown, who in relation to her own vegan cooking had this to share:
“I don’t believe in giving people crappy food, when we can give them fresh food from the land . . . I wage war with a fork.”
After losing 128 pounds by switching her diet to one that is mostly vegan, citing health concerns, she now proudly serves vegan and vegetarian food options at many of her food popups and catering gigs.
To be fair to our city, we have an unbounded potential in the world of veganism but we need to be more critical of each other with valid constructive and comparative criticisms. We need to be looking at the broader national picture. We need to be able to sustain development of our crafts to compete and rightfully justify national recognition. And we need to listen to our racial and cultural dialogues within the culinary scene and then gauge best practices within the industry.
And finally, we owe it to ourselves to have more food critics and publications that fully comprehend all of the intricacies of veganism when writing something representative of the dietary concept and food landscape.
Julien Godman is a contributing writer to The Metropolitan. His co-writer, Lady K, accompanies Mr. Godman on many of his culinary journeys. To read more from Julien please visit his blog Tonic & Juice