On a recent weekday, Laura Neff, co-owner of the vegan and vegetarian food delivery service Nourish, scrolls through photos on her phone, proudly showing off the meals her team has prepared.
"Most people would show you pictures of their kids," Neff says with a laugh. "I'm showing you pictures of my food."
In the last two years, Charlotte has seen a spate of new eco-conscious establishments, including Eco-licious, a cruelty-free and eco-friendly retail shop in Plaza Midwood, and the vegan and vegetarian restaurant Luna's Living Kitchen on South Boulevard. Now, Garden of Veg*n, the area's first vegan kitchen community, opens this month on Sardis Road North, with spaces for three local businesses specializing in healthy, plant-based, natural food. Chelly's Cakes-n-Pastries (a vegan wholesale bakeshop), Viva Raw (a raw foods and juice shop) and Nourish have pooled their resources for a larger purpose: to prepare healthy foods for hungry people.
The kitchen community is a 2,240-square-foot space strictly dedicated to preparing the three business' food offerings. The kitchenmates share a walk-in freezer, cooler space and oven. As this is all-natural food, the only fancy equipment belongs to Viva Raw, which uses dehydrators for granola and cold-press juicers for the raw juices. Decorations are limited to a well-stocked pantry, shiny counter space and smiling faces.
The partners say that having a community kitchen is a cost-effective way for the three independently owned businesses to thrive. Joining forces allows each to offset expenses and put more money into expanding services; for example, Chelly Wilson of Chelly's Cakes-n-Pastries already has a contract lined up to sell her baked goods at the new Whole Foods in SouthPark.
Chelly's Cakes-n-Pastries (Photo: Natrice Bullard)
The idea of a vegan or plant-based lifestyle has slowly gained popularity in Charlotte, a city better known for the fried goodness at area hotspots like Price's Chicken Coop. "In places like the West Coast and in the northeast, the whole vegan, raw food, and juicing movement has been around [longer]," says Scott Harris, owner of Viva Raw. "But Charlotte is just now opening up to the idea of that." He started his juice business as a delivery service last year and now has a storefront in the 7th Street Public Market.
Viva Raw (Photo: Natrice Bullard)
"It was a shock when I came here from the D.C. area," says Wilson, whose all-natural gourmet desserts would fool non-vegans. "I thought, surely a city like this has vegan options ... but it's impressive how quickly options have become available."
That's because the demand is growing everywhere. According to a 2011 Harris Interactive study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, the number of vegans in the country has doubled since 2009 to 2.5 percent of the population.
"We have single people who are corporate and busy and just want to eat well; we have dual-income households that just want to feed their kids well; we have people with food allergies," Neff says. "It's not just people who want to cut calories and get healthy. For me, it's health first, ethics second. But for others, it might be ethics first, health second."
The big response to vegan-friendly and eco-conscious foods at these new local establishments is a testament to Charlotte's need for such options. "Our menu sells out within two hours every week, and that was not our intention," says Neff.
Items such as quinoa tabbouleh and potato harra (spicy potatoes) or vegan caramel apple cinnamon rolls appeal to hungry customers who are realizing it's possible to eat healthy without eating strictly tofu or salad.
"A lot of people think that if they do a plant-based diet, they're giving up taste or eating rabbit food, but it's not like that," Harris says. Julia Simon, co-owner and chef at Nourish, asks people to eat with an open mind. And judging by the delivery service's success, people have done just that.
Nourish recently did a "Hundred Mile Meal," in which all of the ingredients for that week's menu were grown within 100 miles of Charlotte. Bell's Best Berries in Unionville, and Tega Hills Farms in Fort Mill, S.C., are two of the local farms that participated.
"I think everybody is raised on the idea that we go to the grocery store across the street and what we eat is in this nice little package," Simon says. "But I think veganism can be a beautiful way to eat because it makes you feel lighter in so many ways."
Adds Wilson, "You immediately become a foodie because you want to know what's in the food you're eating."
Lightening the burden on your body, mind and soul? That's a temptation worth giving in to.