LONG BEACH, Calif. — When Stephanie Morgan started pulling dishes out of her food truck, vegan food was an indefinite oddity for the average person.
Twelve years and two restaurants later, Morgan and Seabird Kitchen have expanded its premium vegan cuisine brand as consumers’ appetites for this type of food have grown.
Morgan’s restaurants, located in Long Beach, Costa Mesa and a third slated to open in Los Feliz in April, focus on whole foods while skipping anything processed.
“I always forget that we’re a vegan restaurant,” she said. “I just create food that tastes good and that I want to eat.”
When Morgan started, vegan food was an outlier. Today, national restaurant chains have invested heavily in plant-based alternatives.
The market has grown since then and seems to be gaining momentum, especially among millennials. According to YouGov, a London-based data and analytics group, around one in five millennials have switched to plant-based diets. Their reason, he found, was to benefit the planet.
And the money for herbal companies is about to explode. While the market in 2020 was around $29 billion, Bloomberg Intelligence predicts the industry could explode to nearly $170 billion over the next decade.
Advocacy for a vegan diet began largely as a discussion of food ethos highlighting the practices of factory poultry and livestock farms. In recent years, the conversation has broadened to include the greenhouse gas toll that such farming practices can impose on the environment.
Bill Gates has spoken publicly about the need for people, especially in wealthy countries, to eat plant-based meat substitutes. He has invested in various companies including Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats.
Big money, growing interest from young professionals, and better products have led to the nationalization of plant-based foods.
“Now there are Impossible Chicken Nuggets in every KFC across the country,” Morgan said. It’s very revealing.
Beyond Meat partnered with KFC for a trial in 2017 to distribute Beyond Chicken Nuggets in 10 stores. Now the nuggets are having a nationwide push for a limited time.
Impossible Burgers has an even larger footprint. They’re available at a host of national, local and independent restaurants like Burger King, Red Robin and White Castle. The Long Beach socialite has been carrying the burger for years.
California has been an attractive state for some business owners to start their vegan businesses.
Sacbe Meling, a Downey native who now lives in Las Vegas, opened his first out-of-state location in Long Beach. His restaurant, Panchos Vegan Tacos, takes the flavors and textures of Mexican cuisine and transforms them for a vegan audience. California, he explained, was the obvious place to expand outside of Vegas.
“It’s the fastest growing vegan market, and I think it has a lot of vegans and vegan-friendly people,” he said. “They can still eat meat, but they’re willing to go to a vegan restaurant.”
Meling’s Restaurant also considers itself a second-tier vegan restaurant, instead of marketing itself as a Mexican restaurant that only serves plant-based foods.
Meling said his only ceiling is the economy, rising labor costs and a pool of consumers who may not be willing to spend as much time in his restaurants, limiting his interest in opening new locations.
Morgan is moving forward with her plans, having committed to a lease five years ago. The challenge, she said, comes down to how plant-based foods are valued. Impeccably prepared premium carrots with the freshest interest could cost $18, she noted, too high a price for most.
“I have to weigh the perceived value of the guest, which is my constant battle,” she said. “You can get really cheap calories, but you can’t get really cheap nutrients.”
However, evidence is mounting that the growth of vegan cuisine – fast food or fine dining – is approaching a ceiling of uncertain height.
“It’s a really easy move to follow,” Morgan said. “It’s crazy to see now how far it’s come.”