British Columbia·Growing Vegan

'Vegan used to be a dirty word': Vancouver's vegan pioneers share their stories

Veganism is a booming food trend in B.C., but it wasn't always that way. Here are some of the early pioneers who shunned animal foods and products.

Early businesses that catered to vegans say they were once an anomaly

Baljinder Virk has worked as a chef at the Naam vegetarian restaurant in Vancouver for the past 35 years. The Naam's manager says the word vegan wasn't even used when he started there 30 years ago. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Growing Vegan is a multiplatform CBC Vancouver series that explores how the business of veganism thrives in B.C.

When Joanne Chang first cut all animal products from her life 25 years ago, there were so few vegan foods available that she had to eat cereal with orange juice instead of a milk alternative. 

"Vegan used to be a dirty word and now it's not," Chang said over the phone from Nice Shoes, the Vancouver-based vegan shoe retailer she co-owns with her husband. 

Chang, 45, grew up in Vancouver, but was living in the Boston area attending post-secondary school at the time.

She had been vegetarian before that, but when her brother signed her up for a newsletter from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), she chose to take the extra step to become vegan. 

Joanna Chang, co-owner of vegan shoe store Nice Shoes, has been vegan for 25 years. (Joanna Chang)

It took five years of trying before she was able to do it. 

"If I were trying to do it now, I'd probably do it in a week or two because you can just replace whatever product you wanted to replace with an alternative," she said.

'The extremists of the foods'

British Columbia has more vegans, per capita, than any province in Canada. 

Today in B.C., there is no shortage of businesses offering vegan products. There are vegan pizza shops, vegan bakeries and even vegan pudding stores. 

But some of the province's vegetarian and vegan pioneers say shunning meat and animal products wasn't always as well understood as it is today. 

They also admit it has always been more lucrative to market themselves more broadly to health-conscious consumers rather than to target vegans alone. 

Yves Potvin, founder of Yves Veggie Cuisine and Gardein Foods, says his company didn't label its products as vegan — partly because it didn't want to be branded as radical. 

"Veganism, it was almost the extremists of the foods," Potvin said. "Almost the terrorists of a group that wants you to change your diet."  

Potvin, 63, says Yves Veggie Cuisine instead targeted consumers looking for low-cholesterol, plant-based alternatives to convenience foods like hot dogs, burgers and ground beef. 

Marketing to vegetarians and vegans would have been "preaching to the preacher," he said.

'It was a bit of an anomaly'

Glen Delukas, 49, still remembers the first meal he ate at the Naam, where he is now the manager. 

The Kitsilano restaurant has been catering to vegans and vegetarians since 1968, when it opened as a collective. Business partners Peter Keith and Bob Woodsworth bought the business in 1981, and still own it today. 

The Naam was once one of the rare hubs for the meat-averse to congregate in Vancouver. 

"It was a bit of an anomaly in the city," said Delukas, sipping a cup of coffee at a round wooden table on the restaurant's covered patio. 

Glen Delukas has worked at the Naam vegetarian restaurant for 30 years. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Delukas's father first took him to the restaurant when he was about 16. He sat at table 7 in front of the counter and had a stuffed pita and a blueberry shake — both are still on the menu. 

In 1990, when Delukas turned 19 and had a baby to raise, he started working in the kitchen. Thirty years later, he still works there, managing schedules and tending to the menu.  

Delukas says the Naam didn't really differentiate between vegans and vegetarians when he first started working there.

"I don't even know if the word vegan was even used," he said, adding that vegans were simply known as vegetarians who didn't eat cheese or eggs, which the restaurant serves.

"Macrobiotic was the big thing back in 1990." 

The Naam's manager says many of the items on the vegetarian restaurant's menu haven't changed in decades. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Today, the Naam still caters to a wide group of customers that includes families and students coming in for nachos after a night of partying. 

Delukas says the restaurant still tries to accommodate as many dietary preferences as possible, based on customers' needs.

"Because gluten-free now is the new vegan, right?"

Follow Growing Vegan on The Early Edition weekday mornings and On The Coast weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, and watch CBC Vancouver News at 6 weekdays and read the daily stories online at cbc.ca/bc.

 

 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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