Despite hunger for vegan food, some Chittenden County restaurants are cutting hours

Customers gaze at the menu at Pingala Cafe in Burlington on Wednesday, August 31. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As plant-based foods grow in popularity across the country among vegans and non-vegans alike, restaurants in Chittenden County are trying to keep up.

But the growing demand has paradoxically led several owners to reduce their opening hours.

“It’s like any other economy: there’s a response to a demand,” said Trevor Sullivan, owner of the plant-based Pingala Café & Eatery. “The vegan movement is happening and it’s changing in a way where you don’t have to identify as a vegan to connect with this food. … Five years ago that wouldn’t be the case .

Plant or vegan foods do not contain any animal by-products. These parameters require techniques that have made it even more difficult to find kitchen staff in an already tight job market. The recipes are also based on certain ingredients particularly affected by global inflation.

At Pingala Café, one of the first plant-based restaurants to open in Burlington, sales are up 50% since before the pandemic. The company opened a second location in Burlington in July.

Still, to retain staff and reduce burnout, Sullivan kept hours of operation at half of what they were before the pandemic. Previously open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Pingala’s hours are now 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the second location closed two days a week.

Part of Pingala’s attraction came from Sullivan’s television appearances on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2020 and “Guy’s Grocery Games” in June.

“I spoke with Guy (Fieri),” Sullivan said, referring to the host of both shows. “He knows (vegan food) is a big part of the food movement going forward.”

Similarly, retail sales at Sweet Alchemy Bakery and Café in Essex Junction have nearly doubled over the past two years. But owner Bhava Carr has limited opening hours from Friday to Sunday in part because she can’t find consistent chefs and bakers.

“It’s always been difficult to find staff who are passionate about plant-based or even vegetarian cuisine,” Carr said. “I’ve never been able to find anyone… who can commit to the long term.”

Carr plans to either reduce the number of days Sweet Alchemy is open or switch to online ordering, which would allow the business to operate with fewer staff.

When Offbeat Creemee opened in 2021, it served ice cream Thursday through Sunday. With lines stretching the length of the 200 square foot store in Winooski, owner Aisha Bassett said she was overwhelmed and often unable to keep up.

Since August, Offbeat has only been open on weekends. By limiting its opening days, Bassett said it was better able to prepare for demand and offer more pints and wholesale items.

“The demand has increased a lot. Unfortunately, my space didn’t,” Bassett said. Offbeat’s current location only has two mini-fridges and four chest freezers, and she couldn’t find another location that fit her budget.

“We would like to grow right now. But right now there’s really nothing available,” Bassett said. “I just think it’s really difficult for a small business to pay for the cost of opening a store or a production plant on its own.”

Dealing with staffing issues and inflation

As Vermonters feel more comfortable eating indoors, one of the challenges many restaurants face, whether plant-based or not, is staffing.

That’s part of what led Knead Bakery, a Burlington plant-based bakery cafe that opened in 2018, to close on September 4.

Owner Rob Blum also cited a recent birth in his family, among other reasons. Blum said requests for the back of the house at Knead were still thin, potentially due to the added challenges that come with plant-based cooking.

Sullivan said he was lucky that some people left the state to work at Pingala because of its plant-based mission. At the same time, he worries about staff burnout. Pingala’s shorter opening hours allow it to offer a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule, which it describes as “unprecedented” in the restaurant industry. It is partly for this reason that he believes his cafe was able to hire and retain staff.

A sign lets people know Pingala Cafe in Burlington is hiring. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Other companies are experiencing an increase in demand for their products, but are struggling with inflation – another issue that many restaurants face.

Ren Weiner is the owner of Miss Weinerz, a “small cottage kitchen and garden operation” that makes donuts, many of which are plant-based. Although she doesn’t have a retail outlet, Weiner said she’s noticed growing interest in her vegan products.

Weiner focuses on sourcing replenishing ingredients such as elderberries from a bush in his garden or peaches from his neighbor’s tree. Even so, Weiner said inflation nearly doubled the price of key ingredients, including flour and oil. Although she only raised her prices once – by 15 cents – she said she may have to do so again in the future.

Sullivan said the cost of sunflower oil has increased dramatically due to the war in Ukraine. He said it was “inevitable” that Pingala would soon raise prices, in part to help cover the rising cost of living for its employees.

Sweet Alchemy decided to turn part of their garage into a storage space, storing paper and dry goods for three to nine months to fight inflation. Carr also purchased a second, larger fridge for the kitchen from Sweet Alchemy to buy in bulk. She said they have also started pickling specialty items in anticipation of price increases and shortages during the winter months.

Blum said Knead had “undervalued” itself in the face of inflationary costs, often absorbing price increases instead of charging customers more. When Knead’s prices rose, Blum said he saw business shrink. Blum, however, doesn’t believe Knead’s closure means vegan food is becoming less popular. In fact, he thinks it’s growing in popularity.

According to Sullivan, vegan food has become more normalized. Plant-based restaurants are increasingly known for simply having foods that people love.

“The vegan food thing is almost kind of becoming less relevant or less considered,” Sullivan said.

Justin Besse, second from right, assists a customer at Pingala Cafe. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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