Meat-free restaurants say Detroit has enough appetite to sustain all
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LaKeta McCauley owns vegan restaurant The Raw Café in Midtown.
Photo: NATHAN SKID/CDB
Even with two vegetarian restaurants, The Raw Café and Seva, located just blocks away in Midtown, the owners of the Russell Street Deli are confident their new vegan carry-out deli Topsoil will be a success.
But is there enough of an appetite to support another meatless restaurant in such tight quarters?
If you ask each of the restaurant owners, the answer is yes.
Each owner feels his or her restaurant fills its own niche within the vegetarian segment of the restaurant industry.
Topsoil, in the soon-to-be-completed Auburn apartment building at Cass Avenue and Canfield Street, is based on a quick-service model. The Raw Café offers only raw, organic options. Seva is a more traditional, sit-down restaurant that happens to have a menu without meat.
Ben Hall, co-owner of Russell Street Deli and Topsoil, said the increasing popularity of vegetarian options at Russell Street prompted him and business partners Jason Murphy and Russell Street chef Raymond Wagner to consider another restaurant.
"I think, based on just on our customer base alone, there is enough interest to support another vegetarian restaurant," Hall said. "Our customers told us they want another restaurant, so we are taking them at their word."
Hall said Topsoil will be only 1,000 square feet and will focus on serving carry-out vegan meals in less than five minutes and priced under $7. The kitchen at Russell Street Deli will serve as a commissary for Topsoil.
"We wanted something more scoop-and-serve so we don't have to put in a kitchen," Hall said. "Places in that area are difficult to get in and out of during the lunch break."
Hall said the rise in popularity of vegetarianism, along with its strict counterpart veganism, was caused by a combination of increased visibility on television shows and celebrity interest.
"There was a time when vegetarians were seen as being on the fringe. It was seen as weird," Hall said. "Now, that is not the case."
LaKeta McCauley, owner of The Raw Café, 4160 Woodward Ave., says business has increased by 30 percent since the restaurant opened in October 2010.
But McCauley says turning Detroiters on to raw, vegan food hasn't been easy and can be a difficult sell to a public accustomed to fast-food prices.
"Overall, the interest in vegan food is gaining, but in the city (of Detroit), the appreciation for organic raw food is lacking because people can go across the street to McDonald's and pay pennies for a meal," McCauley said. "They have an expectation that the pricing should be close to that of McDonald's."
Consequently, McCauley said, The Raw Café tries to zero in on the vegan market by focusing on serving only organic raw foods.
All vegans shun animal-based products, including milk, butter and eggs, but "raw (food) vegans are the most serious crowd," McCauley said. "Some of those who try Seva come to our establishment because they want raw organic cuisine."
McCauley said there is room for a third vegetarian restaurant in Midtown but admitted she doesn't want to see any more sprout up.
"I don't know if we can continue to add, but we'll see," she said.
The Raw Café menu features items like pasta noodles made of zucchini; hamburgers made from ground walnuts and portobello mushrooms; and mock tuna salad made from celery, scallions, kelp, and dill.
Checks average $13 to $15. No menu item is heated above 118 degrees, in keeping with vegan principles.
Seva, at 66 E. Forest St., offers a broader vegetarian menu, meaning it uses some animal products in the preparation of its dishes.
Owner Jeff Jackson says sales are 30 percent ahead of where he expected them to be since opening last December.
"I think people are mindful of what they are eating more so than they used to be," Jackson said. "You can create good-tasting food without using meat, and I think people are finding that out."
Jackson says the 4,000-square-foot, 100-seat restaurant fills up during the weekday lunch hour and has a waiting list during weekends.
"Now that students are back, we are seeing another surge," Jackson said. "And we haven't even been here a year yet."
Jackson also owns Seva in Ann Arbor, which has been operating since 1973.
Jackson says there is enough room in Midtown for three vegetarian-based restaurants because they fill different niches.
"In Ann Arbor, we have a vegetarian restaurant on the same block that does more of a deli, and another on Main Street," Jackson said. "They haven't affected us because we are so different."
Tom Lasher, co-owner and chef at Royal Oak's Inn Season Café says the vegetarian restaurant at 500 E. Fourth St. has been popular since it opened in 1973.
"We have always done a brisk business," Lasher said. "But over the past seven years, we have seen about a 20 percent increase in sales."
Lasher attributes the growth to the public's desire to eat fresh, healthy fare -- even those who don't abide by a vegetarian diet.
"I'd say about 60 percent of our customers are omnivores," Lasher said. "People don't want to have to eat meat all the time."
Nathan Skid: (313) 446-1654, email@example.com. Twitter: @NateSkid