From Weird to Wonderful

The 40-Year Journey of Vegan Dining in Northeast Ohio

It’s well before lunch hour on a random weekday, but Cleveland Vegan is a hive of activity. In the sunny storefront café area, a few tables of diners polish off plates of avocado toast and Swiss chard enchiladas.

Behind the counter, chef and co-owner Justin Gorski weaves around a small team of cooks as they prepare two huge catering jobs that weekend: a wedding and the Cleveland Veg Voyage, which is a vegan sunset cruise on the Nautica Queen. Together, the two events will feed more than 300 people.

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“I can’t even believe how busy we are right now,” Gorski says, taking a 30-second break to say hello. He’s smiling through the fatigue—and why not? This level of activity would be impressive even for a veteran business, but Cleveland Vegan has been around for barely three years and its Lakewood storefront opened just eight months ago.

Their success is a testament not only to the dedication of Gorski and his business partner and wife, Laura Ross, but also to the growing acceptance of veganism, which eschews all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey.

The first seeds of the business were planted in 2011, when Ross and Gorski took a trip to India and experienced an entirely plant-based diet. They loved how they felt. “[We felt] clearer, more productive, more peaceful, needing less sleep,” Ross says. So they continued eating vegan when they returned to Cleveland.

Gorski’s band, the Magpies, had just broken up, and after years of touring and scraping together a living as a musician, he was looking for a new direction.

He’d always loved cooking, and started working as the right-hand man for a friend’s catering business.

One night, shortly after Ross had found out she was pregnant, Gorski asked her, “What would you think of starting an all-vegan catering business?”

Ross loved the idea, but was skeptical about the size of the market. “You think we could do it vegan all the way?”

“It’s the way we eat. Why not bring it to others?” he replied.

They forged ahead, starting an LLC but keeping their day jobs—Gorski as a caterer, Ross as a yoga teacher and a volunteer coordinator for a local nonprofit. Ross still teaches yoga, but the other gigs are now history.

Friends helped spread the word, and orders came in immediately. Their big break came in late 2012, when Vitamix Corporation hired them to cater a weekly vegan lunch for 200 employees. The meal was a hit, and the steady gig emboldened them to hire staff and open their storefront café on Detroit Avenue.

“All kinds of people walk in here,” Ross says. “They’re not all entirely vegan, and we’re supportive of that—we don’t quiz them on their way through the door. They might just be curious, or a doctor may have told them to eat a more plant-based diet.”

The shift in attitude is one of the distinguishing factors of contemporary veganism, Ross says. Whereas in the past, people mostly chose veganism because they opposed what they saw as the exploitation of animals for food, today they may also be exploring its health benefits or want to leave a lighter imprint on the planet.

You can get a first-hand account of this transition in attitudes by traveling across town to the venerable Tommy’s Restaurant on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights.

The restaurant’s owner, Tom Fello, started serving vegan and vegetarian food more than 40 years ago not because of any environmental or dietary agenda—but because he was a self-proclaimed nerd. “I didn’t really have any friends in high school, so I just started working,” he says with a laugh and no trace of self-pity. “I found friends at work instead.” On the verge of 63, with a full head of gray hair and boundless energy, he says he has no plans to retire. He can, however, see himself stepping out from behind the punishing heat of the grills and fryers to spend more time with his customers.

“I want everyone to be able to come in here and find something they love to eat,” he says. “Everyone is welcome.” Part of the way he’s done that is by adopting an MO of pleasing everyone— meat eaters, vegans, and vegetarians, alike.

In fact, the restaurant had already been accidentally serving a few vegetarian items even before Fello took the reins. That was back in the late 1960s, when it was a drugstore counter called the Fine Arts Confectionery owned by a Middle Eastern man named Fauzi, who served mostly pre-made, cellophane-wrapped sandwiches that he heated up in a glorified toaster oven. But for himself, he’d make falafel wraps slathered with tahini sauce, figuring his American clientele wouldn’t be interested.

He was wrong. Customers started asking for Fauzi’s falafel instead of prefab burgers. The wraps, at the time a novelty in Cleveland, quickly became Fine Arts’ most popular item. They’re still the number one seller at Tommy’s today.

After Fauzi moved away, Fello, who had recently graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, bought the restaurant. The price was $6,000, which he’d saved up in part by working the counter from the time he was 14.

He says his desire to like and be liked is what led him to offer an ever-growing selection of both carnivorous and meatless items on his menu. At that time, Coventry Road was the epicenter of Cleveland’s counterculture, full of hippies and other nonconformists. Many of those folks wanted vegetarian and sometimes even vegan food.

To please this clientele, Fello added items such as meatless spinach pies, tempeh burgers, and salads to the menu. Many of the dishes are still named after the customers who originally requested them.

Tommy’s adheres to a much less strict dining ethos than Cleveland Vegan. The restaurant still serves traditional burgers and chicken sandwiches alongside its meatless offerings, but using segregated grills. He says the inclusiveness of the restaurant’s menu is what has allowed Tommy’s to thrive for so long, weathering trends and changes in customer tastes.

Demand for meatless items has risen very gradually over the decades, he says, hitting a plateau about six years ago. Tofu has always been the most popular meat substitute, with diners consuming about 100 pounds a week, followed by tempeh (80 pounds a week) and seitan (20 pounds). In all, vegetarian items account for about 70% of sales. Greater fluctuations have appeared with rising awareness of certain food allergies, such as gluten intolerance.

“Oh, there’s no question it’s becoming more mainstream,” Ross says. “It’s so refreshing and cool to see. All the restaurants popping up with vegan nights and vegan dishes—that shows it’s not weird anymore.”

Cleveland Vegan is at 17112 Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, 216.221.0201, Hours: Tues–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat & Sun 10am–2pm.

Tommy’s Restaurant is at 1824 Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, 216.321.7757, Hours: Sun–Th urs 9am–9pm, Fri 9am–10pm, Sat 7:30am–10pm.