Vegan cuisine aims for the mainstream

April 18, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC

More companies like Chipotle are offering animal-product-free options, and it’s not just vegetarians chowing down.

Chipotle’s vegan sofritas burrito

FORTUNE — It’s the “V” word you’re hearing more and more often these days, and it’s steadily making its way into your local food court.

With growing demand for vegan-oriented products, or products containing no eggs, dairy, or animal protein, a growing number of companies are expanding their reach to leave animal-product-averse customers stuffed and satisfied.

In fall 2013, the National Restaurant Association surveyed 1,300 professional chefs around the nation asking them their thoughts on food and beverage trends for 2014. Nearly 60% of those chefs listed meatless or vegetarian items among the top culinary trends.

Many would likely note, however, that it’s not only hardcore vegans who are purchasing vegan products.

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At Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) locations around the country, plant-eaters and carnivores alike are scoffing up orders of the chain’s new meatless delicacy: Sofritas.

The meaty, spicy, soy filling for burritos, tacos, salads, and bowls was introduced at a handful of West Coast shops last year, according to company spokesman Chris Arnold, and after receiving much positive feedback from its test run, the company decided to make Sofritas part of its permanent menu.

“Over the past month or so we’ve been rolling it out at different locations,” Arnold said last week, noting that the Sofritas sales currently account for about 3% of Chipotle’s overall sales. “The initial idea was to create a vegan or vegetarian option that would both taste good and also have crossover appeal to those who aren’t vegetarian or vegan,” Arnold added.

As of this week, about 1,000 of the nation’s 1,600 Chipotle locations carry Sofritas, with additional restaurants adding it to their menus each month. The company’s goal is to offer the product nationwide by early 2015, Arnold said. “Our menu has changed very little over the past 20 years,” he noted. “So this is a significant step for us.”

In just several short years California couple Florian and Shannon Radke have taken their vegan bakery, Cinnaholic, from food truck to franchise. Cinnaholic co-founder Florian Radke said his wife always had a knack for baking, even when she worked at her day job as an accountant. “She’d bring homemade treats to work with her, and most of the time, her co-workers didn’t realize they were eating something vegan,” said Radke.

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Realizing the potential appeal of Shannon’s pastries, the couple — they met in 2008 when German native Florian visited the West Coast for a surfing trip — began a small catering company and food truck. Word promptly spread of the two longtime vegans’ delectable offerings, and the first Cinnaholic bakery opened its doors in Berkeley, Calif. a short time later.

“The growth rate was astounding to us,” Radke said. “We weren’t expecting it to happen in the beginning.” Located near a bustling college campus, the Radkes’ products initially appealed to families, especially those who had young children with food allergies.

But the deliciousness of warm cinnamon rolls boasting unique flavors like bananas foster, lemon poppy seed, and caramel apple pecan ultimately appealed to a much larger league of loyal, local fans. “A recent customer survey we did indicated that quite a few of our regular customers didn’t even realize our products were vegan,” Radke said. “So we definitely have a huge crossover appeal.”

While additional Cinnaholic stores were always part of the long-term plan, the Radkes initially figured they’d eventually open another store or two in their home state before looking at the bigger picture.

Earlier this month, Cinnaholic launched its national franchise program, and since then, the Radkes have received nearly 100 serious inquiries. “It’s pretty interesting,” said Florian Radke. “We thought we’d basically see a couple Bay Area applicants but we’ve been contacted by people in Boston, in New York City, in Texas. The potential is huge.”

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Bestselling author Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who embraced a vegan lifestyle in the early 1980s, said she and a friend, Terry Hope Romero, initially began taping their local-access cooking show, The Post Punk Kitchen in the early 2000s after the two New Yorkers were dismayed by the lack of television programs emphasizing animal-free cuisine.

“I really had no expectations whatsoever,” Moskowitz said of the show. “We just wanted to have fun with it.” Moskowitz published her first book, Vegan with a Vengeance, in late 2005, and things took off running from there.

“It was a different time,” she recalled. “Ten years ago it wasn’t so easy being vegan, and going out to eat was next to impossible.” Today, with eight cookbooks under her belt, Moskowitz said she’s sold over a million volumes and is pleased to note that things are changing, for the better. Her website gets about 20,000 new visitors each day.

“Companies are embracing the word ‘vegan’,” she said. “It’s a desirable and marketable word, and it’s showing up on menus.”

One thing’s for certain: the “V” word will be prevalently featured on the menu of Moskowitz’s new restaurant, Modern Love, opening next month in Omaha, Neb.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the only exclusively vegan restaurant in that region,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting to me. We’re definitely making progress.”

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