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Locals take samples of fritto misto, fried vegetables with dipping sauce, during a "vegan takeover" event by the nonprofit ChattaVegan at Chattanooga Brewing Company. Some of the more popular dishes from ChattaVegan's takeover.
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People take samples of fritto misto, fried vegetables with dipping sauce.

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ChattaVegan Community Potluck

ChattaVegan will hold its next big event at the Hixson Community Center on May 19. In true potluck fashion, everyone is encouraged to bring a vegan dish for the group to share. The nonprofit will also provide plenty of extra food from sponsors, so those unable to bring something are still welcome to attend. Event organizers are hoping to host at least 300 people.

Cost: Free Time: Noon to 4 p.m.

Address: 5401 School Drive

During the peak hour on a typical Tuesday night, Chattanooga Brewing Company sees about 75 patrons, says chef Allyson Smith. March 6, however, was not a typical Tuesday night.

Instead of its usual weeknight group, the Southside brewery was entertaining what seemed deceptively similar to a Saturday night crowd — though it wasn't booze or the promise of good company that had lured them, but the assurance of fine vegan cuisine.

The special menu was part of ChattaVegan's first Takeover Tuesday, an event during which a restaurant changes everything on its menu to vegan for one day. Judging from the 400-man turnout, it's sure to be the first of many, says Corey Evatt, founder of the local nonprofit, which works with local food outlets to promote veganism.

When organizers first advertised the event, which was to seat 30 people, they were surprised to find that tickets sold out in less than 12 hours. To accommodate the overwhelming demand, they decided to open up the entire main floor for anyone who wanted to try an entrée from the special, all-vegan menu featured that night.

Staff opened the doors at 3 p.m. By 5:30 p.m., they were out of the boneless Buffalo "wings."

"That was the first to go," remembers Smith, who created the "vegan junk food" favorites on the menu alongside fellow Chattanooga Brewing Company chef Brad Geust.

Twenty minutes later, their "Reuben & Brewer's Fries," made with sauerkraut and vegan Thousand Island dressing, fell casualty to the hungry masses. From there, it was like "a domino effect," says Smith, and with many guests ordering one of everything on the menu, it wasn't long before half the kitchen's stockpile for the night had been depleted.

"By 9 o'clock, which was when the event was over, we were down to like two quinoa burgers and that's it," Smith says. "It was probably one of the highest-grossing days we've had for a weekday in a while."

With meat- and dairy-free delicacies like coconut-crusted tofu and zucchini and squash pasta to choose from, the bar had been overrun by members of what Evatt calls Chattanooga's "vegan underground."

"The vegan community has silently grown underground, honestly," Evatt says. "We have our vegan restaurants, so there's so many of us that just huddle together in our Cashews and our Sluggo's, and it's rare that we venture out."

But he's hoping the nonprofit's takeover events will prove to local restaurant owners just how many customers they're missing out on by leaving vegan-friendly options off their menus.

"Chattanooga is a pretty progressive town, so the chances are that 1 in 10 people — maybe a little more at this point — are vegan or vegetarian," he says. "So if you have a larger party of people — like, say, eight people — that want to meet up, there's a pretty good chance one of those people are vegan or vegetarian. And they'd probably dictate where that group of people goes."

The goal, advocates say, is simply to create a dining experience that makes everyone feel welcome, no matter their personal beliefs or dietary restrictions. And some local eateries have already begun to answer the call.

Hungry for Options

Sanders Parker, general manager at Flying Squirrel Bar, says he didn't truly see the need for more high-quality vegan options until last year, when he adopted a pescatarian diet for health purposes.

As a 17-year veteran of the food service industry, Parker had often heard horror stories from vegetarians forced to build their meals from sides while dining out, but what surprised him as he started making the rounds of local restaurants was how many treated their vegan options as an afterthought.

"They have [a dish] on there for folks who have to eat this way, but they're not thinking and working with their ingredients and their processes to make it a focus alongside the folks that eat meat," Parker explains.

He decided he wanted the Flying Squirrel to be different, and began working with the kitchen staff to make the vision a reality. Now, as the team is conceptualizing new entrées each season for the changing menu, the question of whether a dish can easily and tastefully be converted to a vegan meal is at the forefront of the conversation.

"We always ask ourselves: Is this vegan already? Or can we make it vegan? Can we at least make it vegetarian?" Parker says.

The new focus has led to menu items like the Flying Squirrel's shiitake mushroom entrée, made with sauteed local mushrooms, togarashi aioli, tare sauce, and other natural ingredients. When guests ask for the vegan version of the dish, the kitchen simply leaves off the aioli, which is made with eggs, and adds more of the soy-based tare to maintain the flavor.

"If we have to totally sacrifice what we feel makes a dish delicious, if we can't make a really tasty vegan version of it, then we don't try," Parker says. "We try to make sure that all of our vegan options are absolutely delicious and they're not sacrificing quality or flavor to not have animal products in there."

The Meat of the Matter

For many business owners focused on the bottom line, the biggest deterrent to adding more plant-based options to the menu is likely the cost. But Evatt says the impression that vegan food is expensive is a myth, especially when it comes to restaurants.

"If you're making seitan Buffalo wings, you're essentially buying flour and frying it and seasoning it. It's one of the cheapest things you can make," he says. "Then you can go charge Buffalo wing prices and the [profit] margins are huge."

But while vegetables, beans and wheat-gluten flour are no doubt less expensive than meat or cheese, Smith says it isn't all easy peasy; there's still a significant investment in time.

To ensure that every vegan dish is completely free of animal products, for example, restaurants that choose to expand their vegan offerings would need to take extra steps to avoid cross-contamination. That could mean taking another few crucial minutes to clean a utensil that has touched meat or to refill the fryer with fresh oil before preparing the vegan meal.

"That is probably one of the limiting factors of having vegan options on your menu," she says. "You have to be super duper careful that you don't grill that tomato in the same place that you just grilled a hamburger."

Still, the investment is one the staff at Chattanooga Brewing Company is more than willing to make. Since March's takeover event, the brewery has added a new vegan section to its menu, including a few favorites from the night like the quinoa burger and the Buffalo "wings." The menu also introduces a few newcomers, like a seitan banh mi sandwich made with the same green curry used in the takeover's popular coconut-crusted tofu dish.

"Most people when they were here swore up and down that 'if you give us more options, we will be here every week,'" Smith laughs. "So that's what I did."

The brewery has also purchased a second fryer to limit cross-contamination, and Smith says she plans to host another takeover event sometime this May.

With a handful of local restaurants now expressing interest in a similar partnership, Evatt says ChattaVegan will host many more takeovers and takeover-like events throughout the rest of the year, with his goal to organize one a month.

He hopes that, like Chattanooga Brewing Co., the events will convince other local restaurant owners to add permanent, high-quality vegan options to their menus, because the vegan movement is more than just a trend, he says.

"I think it's here to stay."

I can't believe it's not chicken

Attendees at ChattaVegan's takeover of Chattanooga Brewing Co. weigh in on the flavor:

>> "Right now when people think vegan, they mostly think lettuce, but actually we were eating Buffalo wings, Reubens, and brownies à la mode. It's amazing that I can order something that's better for my health, for the planet and for animals without having to sacrifice great flavors or give up the dishes I love." — Julie Johnson

>> "The highlight of the night was the curry tofu. I was already full, but I ate my share of the curry tofu and then some. Fresh green curry, peppers and sweet potatoes brought this dish to life. The softness of the sweet potato and the crunch from the fried tofu made each bite a new textural experience." — Michael Coward

>> "Very few restaurants in Chattanooga have started cooking with seitan, which is a plant-based protein powerhouse, so I was stoked to see CBC using it in their wings. Those crispy flavor bombs were face-meltingly good and don't get me started on the ranch dressing. I wonder if we could convince them to sell it by the gallon. I could eat it like soup." — Brittany Coward

>> "The perfect finish to an epic meal, the brownie elated all at the table. Sometimes vegan food tastes good for vegan food but can't compare to the real thing. This wasn't good for vegan food, it was just plain good." — Michael Coward

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