Brooklyn’s Vegan Enclave
For one part of Brooklyn, this is just the veganning
Far from the stereotypical tourist traps of North Williamsburg, the quiet neighborhoods off the Montrose Avenue L stop seem an unlikely location for a collection of vegan restaurants. Potential Chamber of Commerce tax incentives to small businesses along the L train have inspired a vegan renaissance.
“Rents are cheaper here. A of young people can’t drop thirty or forty grand on a dirty little hole-in-the-wall in downtown Manhattan so they come out here to start a business,” — Dan Dunbar, cofounder of Dun-Well Doughnuts.
The Vegan Society defines veganism as a lifestyle that aims to exclude all animal products. Despite the neighborhood’s quiet appearance, vegans are no longer limited to mundane meals or snacks. Through interviews with owners, managers and staff of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the East Williamsburg area, it became clear veganism is more than just a dietary trend.
For vegans, life is not all green smoothies and sunflower seeds. Controversy surrounds the parameters of the movement, mainly regarding the vegan concepts of “clean” eating versus “junk food veganism.” Clean eating is defined as abstention from processed foods, with some vegans even eschewing cooked food altogether.
Described as a “clean plate restaurant,” Sun In Bloom manager Charlotte Owens emphasized she doesn’t “do junk food here”.
“Our menu is pretty much pretty clean,” Owens said. “We do have sweets but our raw cakes have organic ingredients, there’s very very little sugar used, gluten free, nut free.”
Dun-Well Doughnuts and Champ’s Diner, another well-known all-vegan diner, create peanut butter donuts and chicken and waffles. These foods are more likely to be seen in a greasy-spoon fast food restaurant than a health-conscious establishment. Dunbar admits his donuts are not marketed explicitly as health food, but that “junk food veganism” is an individual choice.
Haymaker’s Corner, owned by Champs Diner, relies heavily on vegan and non-vegan customers in the East Williamsburg area. Competitors, however, such as Newtown cafe owner and Manager Zac Darowish said “[Haymaker’s Corner’s] are better at advertising.”
“We have a couple of people coming in from Manhattan for us, but I think Champ’s is a better destination restaurant.”
Many of the operating small businesses who have developed a solid customer base over the years have also noticed a shift in food preference. “There’s definitely a vegan tourism aspect to it. There’s a lot of that in New York” said Caroline Powell, Sales Associate at Haymaker’s Corner.
While the neighborhood has some of the most diverse and trendy vegan spots in the city, they don’t advertise themselves as vegan.
“With Champs down the street, and Dun-Well we kind of ended up becoming a mini vegan district that wasn’t the intent or anything but kind of just happened.” — Zac Darowish, Newtown
As a result the L train shutdown, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce is looking at ways of incentivizing innovation and mobility in the restaurant business. Vegans have accumulated a community of resources in East Williamsburg and as Dunbar said, “vegans seem to seek out other vegans so there’s no trouble finding food.”
Over the last five years the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce has consistently highlighted the cost of finding affordable commercial space as one of their top three issues. With the L train shutdown beginning in April 2019, many of the businesses just steps away from the Montrose Ave L stop will be impacted.
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce is currently exploring options to stave off the effect of decreased foot-traffic in the area. Some businesses have claimed their profits will decrease up to 50 percent during this period. This could hinder the growth of small businesses, especially restaurants in East Williamsburg. The insularity of the vegan community may protect the business from the decreasing accessibility.
“It’s a kind of community where we know the chef’s at Haymaker’s and Champs and they come here, we’ll go there, there’s a lot of cross pollination.” — Zac Darowish, Newtown