Vegan Restaurants Take Off

Eliana Legatt, Staff Writer

Austin is well known for its food scene and in recent years has become more vegan friendly with more all-vegan restaurants popping up around the city. A vegan diet excludes animal products such as meat, fish, milk and eggs, and some vegans choose not to eat honey either. One contributor to the local veganism boom is Michael Moyer, co-founder of Citizen Eatery with his wife Aimee. Their vegan café and bar opened on Burnet Road in November of 2016.

“We just felt that our community could benefit from, and really enjoy and embrace, a restaurant that was clean and casual, that has sort of a contemporary vibe that focused on a plant-based cuisine,” Moyer said.

The restaurant was originally vegetarian, but after requests for the change, Moyer said they began considering becoming all-vegan. A new vegan egg product reached the market around the same time called JUST Egg, which is primarily made of mung bean. 

“We sampled the product, and it was really good, very close to real eggs in the flavor and the texture,” Moyer said. “So we researched the availability of that product, and then we did a trial two-week period where we were just vegan.”

According to Moyer, the trial went well. From there, they switched to an all plant-based menu, serving JUST Eggs in place of real eggs.

“We were the first business in the entire state of Texas to serve that product, and we stayed that way for a little bit,” Moyer said. “Now, it’s all over the place.”

According to Moyer, the restaurant is not only for vegans. Moyer and his family are pescatarians themselves — meaning they eat fish, milk and eggs but not other meat — and they still cater their menu to all diets.

“We try to focus on taste and flavors and feels of foods that people are most familiar with,” Moyer said. “It’s not necessarily about being vegan or plant-based. We just serve good food, and it just so happens we don’t cook with certain proteins. It’s tasty food. Don’t be scared; come try it.”

The restaurant has stayed open through the pandemic and has followed the Centers for Disease Control’s protocols and suggestions. The restaurant is currently open at 50% capacity but still does delivery and takeout.

“I just want to say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ because we’re still open,” Moyer said. “We’ve been open through the pandemic, through the winter storm. We’ve made it through that, and it’s all because of our community, and we owe it all to our community, and we’re just extremely grateful.”

Amelia Raley is a co-owner of Sweet Ritual Ice Cream and Big Nonna’s Pizza. Tech Ridge’s Big Nonna’s Pizza opened in November 2020 while Sweet Ritual, on Airport Boulevard, was founded in 2011. Little Nonna’s was the original business, and it was founded a few years prior to the opening of Big Nonna’s.

“The reason that I started the vegan business with Little Nonna’s is a couple of years ago, I started an ATX vegan food business owners meetup,” Raley said. “We have a private Facebook group where we talk and we share different resources.”

Every six weeks or so, the group would meet at a vegan restaurant called Counter Culture and share ideas about how to run their businesses. In the pandemic, Raley said the group was helpful because they could discuss the implementation of COVID-19 regulations. 

“Little Nonna’s is a food trailer, and Robbie Lordy is the other owner,” Raley said. “He’s always been really into pizza, and he started working at Via 313, a Detroit-style pizza place here. He always wanted to start his own vegan business, and so Via 313 invested in him.”

Raley and Lordy decided to start Big Nonna’s, a combination of Sweet Ritual’s desserts and Little Nonna’s pizza. They looked for a location for about a year, and then the pandemic gave them a unique opportunity with the closure of a business leading to a cut-price deal for the location. 

Now Big Nonna’s does pickup and carry-out, and they also use third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub.

Raley said that Big Nonna’s will be expanding soon to serve items like vegan milkshakes, chicken nuggets and deep-fried dough since experimenting is made easier by the fact that Big Nonna’s isn’t confined to a food trailer. Raley said the winter storm set them back, but they continued the expansion once they could.

Lucas Bradbury is the founder and CEO of San Antonio-based chicken alternative restaurant Project Pollo. Project Pollo’s first location opened in September 2020, and the chain has since expanded into Austin with a location on Rosewood Avenue. 

“It was founded to provide more affordable access, or approachable access, to plant-based alternatives,” Bradbury said. “I’d wanted to come up with a concept that provided amazing high quality food at an extremely affordable price.”

Project Pollo has affordable vegan food but pays all of its employees above living wage with full paid benefits after reaching an eligibility period. Some of the money the restaurant makes also goes toward a local nonprofit. 

“Why that’s important for us to choose some of our smaller nonprofit partners is because every dollar truly matters to them,” Bradbury said. “We have a lot of partnerships that we’ve done events with larger nonprofits, and that’s phenomenal; however, our dollar goes a lot further with somebody who legitimately needs it to keep their non-profit or their operation running.”

The nonprofit that Project Pollo supports changes every quarter, allowing them to help many charities. It also has an item on the menu called the People Project, which is a pay-what-you-can item. They ask that customers pay the $5.50 that the item costs, but if a customer does not have the money, they can have it for free. A customer paying the full amount pays for their meal and a meal for two other people.

“I would much rather give away every single item that we have in a restaurant rather than see somebody go hungry,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury said the business was on track to save the equivalent of 1 million chickens this year. The business is growing, with a new location opening almost every month. Project Pollo also has delivery, pickup and a few drive-throughs opening soon. They are also putting in larger patios to accommodate for social distancing.

“I knew one way or the other, I was going into this 100 miles per hour [to figure] out if this was going to work or not, and the best way to do that is to put them on every corner and saturate the market,” Bradbury said.

Project Pollo is on track to open 10 or 12 locations this first year, 25 by the end of their second year and 100 locations by 2025.