Michael Abramson, the 'vegetarian butcher' king of meat-free BBQ

Vegetarian Michael Abramson quit a 30-year advertising career to bring his dream to life: To open a fully functioning "butcher" shop in downtown Toronto with all the familiar BBQ classics, only they're completely meat-free.

Former owner of ad firm opens what he believes is Canada's 1st vegetarian butcher shop in Toronto

Michael Abramson left a career in advertising to pursue his passion of opening up a butcher shop in Toronto that recreates BBQ classics completely without any meat 1:58

Michael Abramson calls himself a vegetarian butcher because he doesn't do meat. Instead, he stands behind the glass counter at his new Toronto shop, YamChops, ready to pack you up half a dozen beet burgers or perhaps steaks made from mushrooms, ready to sizzle on the BBQ.

He admitted "calling ourselves a vegetarian butcher certainly raised a few eyebrows." So have his product names, such as "No Pork Pulled Pork" and "No Crab Crab Cakes."

There are a lot of people out there are who are looking for non-meat alternatives that taste like the things they know and love.- Michael Abramson, YamChops owner 

"We're not making fun of meat," said Abramson, about the family business that includes his wife and two daughters on staff.

Instead, he wants to bring vegetarian dining into the mainstream by wooing meat eaters. 

"We provide comfortable food for them, food that they recognize, the flavour profiles as well as the names."

His offerings, labelled and laid out fresh, just like at a regular butcher shop, are artful imitations of the real thing. What looks like succulent smoked salmon is actually thinly sliced carrots that Abramson marinates, seasons, smokes and then bakes until the texture is soft like lox.

Coconut Ba-con

His "Coconut Ba-con" is actually marinated coconut flakes that are hickory smoked and baked until crunchy. His other menu items include "Tuna-less Tuna" made with chickpeas, and "Korean BBQ Chick'n" made with soy. The pulled pork is made with cabbage. 

Freelance food writer Mary Luz Mejia scoped out YamChops on opening day and was particularly impressed with the Carrot Lox. "That's the crazy thing," she said, "Your brain registers that this is a piece of carrot, but you are tasting something very similar to smoked salmon."

The food is already attracting a wide customer base. It includes the usual suspects: Vegans and vegetarians, but also, so-called flexitarians, folks who aim to eat less meat, usually for health reasons, but just can't quite go all the way.

"I certainly know it's a growing market. A lot of people are reducing their meat consumption and we think we provide a great alternative for them to do that," said Abramson. He estimates that, so far, almost half his customers fall into that category.

"He's trying to make the place accessible to the widest number of people," said Mejia. "There are a lot of people out there are who are looking for non-meat alternatives that taste like the things they know and love."

Close 2nd to meat

Non-vegetarian customer Martin Meyer agrees.

"It's a good alternative when you don't want a lot of meat," he said. "It tastes like meat. It never tastes exactly like meat because you're never able to replicate exactly 100 per cent. But it's a close second."

Abramson left a 27-year advertising career to pursue YamChops.

"This is my little red sports car. I have a crazy passion for plant-based foods," said the committed vegetarian, who spent years studying plant-based cooking. "I just wanted to live this out before I didn't work anymore."

The vege-butcher concept is a small but growing trend, globally.

Probably the most successful venture to date is the Netherlands-based Vegetarian Butcher, which opened in 2010 and now serves markets across Europe. Abramson believes his shop is unique in Canada.

Sure, packaged mock meats are widely available in this country. But variety is limited and some lack flavour. They also can include processed fillers, preservatives and loads of salt, making them counterproductive for those pursuing a healthier diet.  
Vegetarian dishes that are good approximations of meat-based classics are served up at a new vegetarian butcher shop owned by former advertising executive Michael Abramson, who is trying to woo non-meat and meat eaters alike. (Sophia Harris/CBC)

"It's a practice that we just refuse to follow, so all of our stuff is fresh. There's no preservatives, very, very low sodium," said Abramson.

He also said he uses only organic, non-genetically modified soy. But if a customer wants a vege-option at a cheaper price and longer shelf life, he does offer some popular packaged brands at the back. Such fresh food comes at a price ranging from $9.49 for 100 grams of Coconut Ba-con to $1.99 for a pseudo-sausage link.

Mejia believes the prices are comparable to what you would pay for the real thing at a specialty store. Abramson also offers salads, raw pad thai and a juice bar. 

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