Years ago, it wasn’t so easy to be vegan. You’d have to search extensively to find restaurants with plant-based options, and information about making food that doesn’t contain animal products was limited to a niche community.
Now, veganism — with its environmental friendliness and numerous health benefits — is on the rise. And it’s never been easier to make the switch — take a look around the Boston area, where there’s no shortage of plant-based eateries: Veggie Galaxy and PlantPub in Cambridge, FoMu in the South End and beyond, Grasshopper in Allston, True Bistro in Somerville, and Zhu Vegan Kitchen in Brookline and Arlington, to name a few. And a huge new PlantPub is set to open later this spring near Fenway Park.
But fans of vegan food aren’t limited to the big city. Further west, the Pioneer Valley has some of the best vegan food in the state. You just have to know where to look.
Natural light floods Wild Chestnut Cafe in Florence, a village of Northampton, with its hanging plants and wooden tables. In the three months the vegan shop has been open, business has been booming.
“We thought, you know, during a pandemic — there’s no better time to open,” said Rosalie Black, with obvious sarcasm. She owns Wild Chestnut with Myssie Lacharite.
Colorful cupcakes line the glass display by the register. On any given day, there might be pumpkin ones with cinnamon cream cheese frosting, chocolate stout cupcakes with blood orange frosting, or key lime pie cupcakes with vanilla frosting. On St. Patrick’s Day, Wild Chestnut teamed up with a neighboring brewery to bake an Irish stout-infused chocolate cupcake with a mint frosting. No matter the day, the cupcakes are among the first baked goods to go.
But customers tend to reach for the sweets after lunch. Offerings include a wild chickpea sandwich and a TLT (smoked tempeh instead of bacon, with lettuce and tomato), both paired with a pickle spear, and specials such as a roasted veggie quinoa bowl, a southwest scramble with breakfast potatoes, and an orange creamsicle smoothie. Other smoothies on the menu — Lucky’s Mango Lassi, Luna’s Strawberry Paradise, and Bear’s Blueberry Bliss — are named for the co-owners’ pets and children.
As customers approach the register — which is adorned with animals rights stickers — friendliness radiates from Black and Lacharite, the cafe’s only employees. The two met through animal activism in Northampton, became good friends, and dreamed of opening an eatery together that puts their values at the forefront. Both had worked at vegan cafes before and brought their skills together. Now, that dream has come true.
“We’re doing this out of our love for animals, and our focus is on animals and activism,” said Black, a painting of pigs playing alongside the words “Friends Not Food” hanging on the wall behind her.
A town over in Hadley, Pulse Cafe operates in a modern rustic barn that was once a bison processing facility before being transformed into a 10,000-square-foot vegan restaurant five years ago, said Evita Wilbur, the general manager and soon-to-be owner.
Along with her husband and several investors, Wilbur opened the cafe with a specific goal in mind: to promote a healthier lifestyle. For the past two decades, the Wilburs have traveled the country hosting vegan workshops, organizing cooking classes, and speaking about the benefits of a plant-based diet, which has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol levels.
Nearly two decades ago, Wilbur switched to veganism “at a time where I had to learn how to make tofu, I had to learn how to make the cheese, I had to learn how to make my own milks,” Wilbur said, sipping on a fresh-pressed juice. “It wasn’t as accessible as it is now. It’s never been easier to be vegan than it is today.”
Around us, dozens of customers feasted on an eclectic spread: a plant-based burger with caramelized red onion, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, tortilla strips, guacamole, and chipotle mayo; a hearty Southern comfort bowl with apricot BBQ glazed tofu, cashew mac ‘n’ cheese, braised organic collard greens, and stewed black-eyed peas; and a wood-fired buffalo chicken pizza. During Sunday morning brunch, customers hungrily await chik’n and waffles and Cubano paninis.
“My philosophy has always been bringing comfort foods from all over the world and having something for everybody. Somebody might come in and say they want a really juicy burger, a little fatty, with potatoes. For somebody else, they might want a raw salad,” she said. “We have something for everybody.”
While Pulse has more than two dozen people working in the kitchen, another vegan operation a short drive away has become something of a grassroots phenomenon while employing a decidedly slimmer staff of one.
After a year of slinging pizzas out of his apartment in Easthampton, Will Meyer now organizes pop-up events at local breweries and stores around the valley. His Vegan Pizza Land plant-based pies start at $10 each — significantly cheaper than the comparable Double Zero vegan pizzeria on Newbury Street — and stretch 10-12 inches “depending on how fussy the dough is.”
A classic red pizza with tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, chili flakes, salt, and basil alongside a margherita pizza with cashew cheese are mainstays on the menu. Two red and white ones showcase the chef’s creativity: A few weeks ago, a gochujang tomato sauce, kimchi, fake sausage, and cashew mozzarella topped a red pizza. Another time, a white pizza boasted a cashew and caramelized leek cream base, covered with cashew mozzarella, roasted sweet potatoes, kale, pickled red onion, and a balsamic glaze.
At each pop-up, Meyer nimbly navigates a coordinated chaos, often tucked in the corner of a local brewery and surrounded by premade dough, containers filled with toppings, a mini oven, and a sous chef. One by one, he assembles the pies with practiced precision, determined to make a quality product “that I would want to eat.”
From the tomato sauce to the cashew cheese to the pizza dough, every ingredient is handmade or locally sourced — ingredients that “lift up human rights issues,” Meyer said. “We just started sourcing Palestinian olive oil. We’ve been getting more ethical chocolate for our cookies. We’re not using avocados, no way.”
For now, the chef has no plans to expand his makeshift pizza operation into a traditional restaurant.
“I’m a musician and I do journalism stuff,” said Meyer, who founded and co-edits The Shoestring, a local reader-funded news outlet, and is the lead singer of Stoner Will and The Narks. “I’m trying to create a Pizza Land that can grow but not take over my life.”
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.