As vegans mark World Vegan Day on Tuesday, Chattanooga is seeing a rise in vegan and vegetarian options taking over menu boards.
Places such as Sluggo's and Cashew have been a welcoming place for vegans since the early 2010s, creating a foundation for newer cafes and food trucks to thrive. Chattanooga business owner Kelsey Vasileff -- who co-owns Southern Squeeze with her husband, Jody -- said when first opening their plant-based kitchen in April 2014, options were limited.
"I didn't necessarily open up this space to have a vegan cafe, but my focus is more geared towards health, and having the healthiest options to provide people in Chattanooga and beyond was my goal, as I saw that lacking," she said.
Vasileff said it really wasn't until the past two to three years when a major trend began to happen locally as more businesses began expanding their menu to include vegan and vegetarian options.
"I feel like Chattanooga has been blessed with so many new restaurants recently, and they all usually have some option on their menu that you can get that's vegan," Vasileff said, "which is great, and I feel like that was never a thing before."
Chattanooga was listed No. 7 on the Top 10 Vegan-Friendly Towns and Small Cities in America for 2020 by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Vasileff said the city has always been health conscious and that there seems to be a domino effect of people becoming more aware of what their bodies need and have sought out resources to learn more. She said visiting local businesses and asking questions is a good place to start for those seeking help on how to transition to plant-based diets. One of those resources comes in the form of Amy Nelson, owner of Final Girl Vegan Food Truck, who began traveling with her vegan services in April of 2022 to the Chattanooga Market. Nelson said being in the truck allows her to connect more personally with the vegan community as well as those who are curious.
"I get to interact, answer questions about ingredients and vegan food in general," Nelson said by phone. "I was pleasantly surprised at how many people were curious enough to give it a try."
Nelson said she believed more information coming out about ethical and health standards, especially from physicians encouraging a plant-based diet, has helped drive the -- curiosity.
With growing attention to the vegan community has also come events that support those within it. On Oct. 15, Coolidge Park was taken over by Chattanooga VegFest, a showcase of all things veganism.
The event was brought to the city by the Triangle Vegfest Organization, which collaborated with the 7 Bridges Marathon and Between the Bridges Art Festival to create a full day of food and art appreciation.
The grounds brought in many out-of-state vendors to share their food -- from a California-based restaurant, Vuture Food, to the Corn Soup King, a traveling vegan and Caribbean-style inspired business.
Outside of food vendors, a big priority of the festival was to bring resources to those who weren't already vegan. Yuri Mitzaewich, of Vegan Outreach, an international nonprofit, gave out free resources on how to transition to a vegan lifestyle. He said about 80% of patrons weren't already vegan and that he was happy to showcase how veganism doesn't have to be about deprivation.
"There's a lot of people here today who are definitely vegan-curious," Mitzaewich said. "They don't know that it's actually enjoyable. More have this idea that it's about depriving yourself, which isn't true at all."
(READ MORE: Where to eat vegan food in Chattanooga)
Mitzaewich was also promoting an opportunity called the Vegan Chef Challenge that will be coming to Chattanooga in the summer. He said the nonprofit will work with local restaurants to get more vegan options on their menus.
One festival-goer, Miles Matchinske, a Tennessee native, said he was happy Chattanooga was creating a space for the vegan community. Being flexi-vegan, meaning he doesn't buy animal or dairy products at home but allows for leniency when going to restaurants in case cheese is a part of a meal, Matchinske said he was able to recall a clear shift in Chattanooga regarding options available over the past five years.
Matchinske said he believes the change stems from veganism trending globally due to an awareness of the natural impact people have on the planet, thus carrying into a more local scale.
"Chattanooga is a scenic city, right? So, we lean a lot into our natural areas here," he said. "I think within that, there's a growing culture of trying to pay more attention to nature and our impacts on it."
As the vegan community continues to grow in Chattanooga, those vegan-curious can visit ChattaVegan, an organization that offers blog postings, reviews and listings of where to find local vegan food as well as at-home recipes.
What is a vegan?
A person who abstains from eating animal products, such as meat, dairy, eggs and seafood. Some also avoid honey.
Source: The Associated Press