Parkdale, a rapidly gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood, was the scene of a protest Saturday against its latest interlopers—vegans.
Around 250 people turned out to the meeting, called Parkdale Isn’t Vegandale, to express their concerns over the branding of a cluster of vegan shops and restaurants that have dubbed themselves Vegandale around Queen and Brock streets. Their issues centred on capitalism, gentrification, and a perceived moral self-righteousness on the part of the vegan businesses.
“I feel I am being shamed or criticised for not being able to follow a vegan diet,” said resident Amy Brown at the forum, which was hosted by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust at a community garden. “I have no problem with veganism. I have a problem with being insulted by the signs on the businesses and having them imply that I am lesser than.”
Brown was referring to the slogan of the newly-opened Vegandale Brewery: “Morality on Tap.” The brewery’s Facebook page says, “Can you love animals without being vegan? No. Is veganism the best thing we can do to align our actions with our morals? Yes.”
(Sidenote: Many, many beers are vegan. They just don’t feel the need to brand that way.)
Vegandale consists of the brewery, restaurants Mythology and Doomie’s, clothing store The Imperative, ice cream shop NYM (as in Not Your Mother-Not Your Milk), and the soon-to-be opened Vegandale Bracitorium and Prohibition Pie, all of which are owned by the same group called the 5700 Inc.
Owner Hellenic Vincent de Paul, who describes himself as a “vegan extremist” told VICE said he’s set on pushing veganism as a moral and social justice issue, not simply a diet.
“Our marketing and approach to promoting veganism has always been unapologetic and it’s not something that we shy away from. We believe that we have a moral imperative to promoting non-violence towards animals,” he said in an email.
Vincent de Paul, is from Sri Lanka and moved to Toronto as a refugee when he was a kid. In an interview with the Toronto Life, he acknowledged that some might find Vegandale’s branding “alienating” but said “I think the majority of people understand that we’re having fun while talking about an issue that we see as very important.”
But many at the forum did not get or like the joke, and were angered by Vegandale’s branding, especially in a neighbourhood that has traditionally been home to immigrants and low-income people.
“There are ways to open up a new business in Parkdale without being an asshole,” said Liam Barrington-Bush.
Some attendees noted that restaurants with vegan options already exist in Parkdale, many of them run by immigrants.
“When 5700 Inc opens up a restaurant or bar or something, that’s probably a place I can afford to eat at. Will immigrant seniors… will poor people be able to dine at that place? Or will they feel more excluded?” asked Gelek Badheytsang, who grew up in precarious housing in Parkdale.
Parkdale has already been suffering from the effects of gentrification, as hipster Queen West businesses and corporate chains have creeped further west, causing rents to increase. The owner of Tibet Kitchen, a restaurant that’s been in the neighbourhood for 13 years, told VICE his rent recently went up from $4,500 to $8,500 because a Pizza Hut wanted to take over his space.
No one from the 5700 Inc. attended the meeting—they were hosting a vegan block party over the weekend attended by 6,000-8,000 people. However, the group did release a statement about the controversy, claiming to be a self-funded, grassroots Parkdale business that has thrived due to neighbourhood support.
“When we refer to Vegandale, we are only referencing the five businesses we operate and do not look to rebrand the neighbourhood at large.” The statement also describes Vegandale’s hiring practices as being inclusive and LGBT friendly and says one-third of its 100 workers live in Parkdale.
“We do not judge others for their values and share the inclusivity of veganism by welcoming all into our spaces, non-vegans and vegans,” the statement says.
Several vegans at the forum spoke out in defence of Vegandale.
Tenzin Dheden, a Tibetan-Canadian who moved to Canada when she was 12 said she felt it was disingenuous to deny that part of the anger towards Vegandale is linked to how people feel about vegans.
“I think a lot of people here need to examine their biases against veganism,” she said. “If you look at the restaurants Vegandale people have replaced… the prices they were pretty much the same. They only difference is the new ones are vegan and the old ones are not.”
Both Mythology and Doomie’s offer appies from around $8 to $16 for meals.
Dheden told VICE she doesn’t think slogans like “Morality on Tap” are offensive so much as they are tongue in cheek.
Fellow vegan and local business owner Caitlin Brubacher said the "Morality on Tap" slogan is "insensitive because people are poor." However, she said she supports Vegandale's branding in general because she believes veganism is a moral good that needs to be addressed as part of intersectional social justice work. She also said vegans deserve to have options in the neighbourhood where they can walk in and order something off a menu without having to think about it.
The forum ended with the group passing a host of motions to take back to the 5700 Inc., including asking for the removal of morality-related slogans and Vegandale signage, hiring non-vegans and majority Parkdale residents, and offering cheap meals for low-income residents.
Vincent de Paul, told VICE that while Vegandale will not change its marketing tactics, it considers giving back to Parkdale a “top priority.”
In April, a group of vegans staged days of protests outside Antler Kitchen & Bar, a Dundas West restaurant that serves wild game meat. The activists picketed outside the restaurant with signs like “Your food had a face,” promising to stop if Antler displayed the following slogan: “Animals’ lives are their right. In their desire to live and capacity to suffer, a dog, is a pig, is a chicken, is a human. Reject speciesism.”
In response to the protest, Antler co-owner Chef Michael Hunter carved a deer leg in the window of the restaurant as the protesters watched.
Ironically, the international attention from the protest resulted in a spike in reservations for the restaurant. Judging from some of the reviews for Vegandale businesses and the crowds there over the weekend, the same might be true of this controversy.
But, as one of the Parkdale residents pointed out at the forum Saturday, owning a restaurant in Toronto is a tough business with thin margins. It’s entirely possible Vegandale will fold, just like the businesses it replaced.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.