In the ’90s, Charlotte had Talley’s and Berrybrook. In the ’00s Woodlands, Peaceful Dragon, and a few others.
But today, Charlotte’s vegan and vegetarian options are booming with veg-friendly grocers, well-established restaurants like Fern, Bean and Living Kitchen, and bakers and delivery services specializing in meat and dairy-free food.
And for seven years now, that movement has been celebrated at Charlotte Vegfest — a pop-up market of regionally produced, plant-based, cruelty-free food and goods that’s indicative of the movement’s vast growth in Charlotte and beyond over the past five years. The annual event takes place Saturday in Freedom Hall at Park Expo.
“There’s a robust system for support for start-up vegan entrepreneurs in Charlotte. The barrier to entry is lower than it is in other cities and extends to grassroots organizations,” says chef Julia Simon, who owns Nourish Charlotte, a vegan and organic meal delivery food service. “It’s been an explosive little center for vegan culture in the Southeast.”
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Part of that is due to the work of people like retired investment banker Curt Albright, who helped establish the Charlotte branch of The Humane League and got events like VegFest off the ground. He moved to Vero Beach, Fla., after retiring in 2017 and founded Clear Current Capital, a venture capital fund investing in plant-based and clean meat businesses.
Since drawing 500-1,000 people to the first VegFest here, he’s watched others pop up around the country and expects around 6,000 attendees this year in Charlotte.
“VegFests are a huge part of influencing the food system,” Albright says of the smorgasbord of samples and dining options you’ll find at the event. “It proves you don’t have to give up convenient, delicious food.”
What to Expect
This year’s VegFest has a bigger, more diverse food court than ever.
“We have everything from Vietnamese to soul food and arty vegan food to African cuisine,” says Simon.
“It’s also our most kid-friendly VegFest to date,” she adds. Kids can come decked out in costumes and enjoy the mask-making and bag-making stations, and booths will be giving away candy for veg-friendly trick-or-treating. “It’s not just the Starbursts, and stuff that just happens to be vegan. We have Cocomels and other cool vegan candies.”
The big draw for those interested in health and wellness is likely keynote speaker T. Colin Campbell, an 84-year-old nutritional biochemist and author who is a rock star in the movement. His 2005 book “The China Study” was “the beginning of people paying attention for health reasons, realizing they could shift their health by going plant-based,” says Simon.
Other VegFest attractions include a wider array of baked goods and grab-and-go items, not just hot food. There’s also an official after-party at Spoke Easy from 7-10 p.m. Saturday featuring LatinX punk band T.O.F.U., DJ Sativa, Sidenote, and the vegan rapper Grey.
Plant-based vs. vegan
While the idea of veganism once conjured images of PETA protesters and holdover hippies, the current movement is actually racially and ethnically diverse. Walk into Bean on a Friday night and you’ll see grandparents, young hipsters, and diverse families. Many don’t identify as vegan or strictly plant-based eaters, but enjoy the fish-free crab cakes and jackfruit tacos.
“The Good Food Institute did a study that found the word ‘vegan’ may make people not buy a product,” Albright says. “Meat-eaters don’t want to feel guilty and don’t see being vegan as attainable to them. That’s why you see ‘plant-based’ on labels.”
“It’s about being open-minded and helping bring people to the movement instead of driving them off,” adds Simon, who describes The Humane League’s approach as the smart next-generation answer to PETA.
“In the end,” she says, “we want less human impact on the planet, more compassion toward its animals and occupants.”
When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Freedom Hall at Park Expo, 800 Briar Creek Road.
Tickets: Parking is $5, but admission is free.