If you feel guilty about your meat consumption and how it’s hurting the environment, multiply that by thousands. That’s the position of any meat-serving restaurateur looking at the climate-change impact of their business. Because that’s how much more meat they go through than the average household.
That’s why the owners of Grand Electric have chosen to turn one of their popular taquerias into a vegetarian restaurant as they transition the business away from rabid meat consumption.
Meat and dairy production are responsible for 14.5 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, beef being the worst offender by far. The average Canadian consumes about 18.5 kilos of beef a year. Each of Grand Electric’s three locations goes through double that amount in a day.
“It’s undeniable that climate change, amongst other considerations, is directly linked to the consumption of meat and fish,” co-owner Ian McGrenaghan says. “In that way, serving the volume of animal product that we do, we are undeniably negatively affecting the environment.”
Lately, Mr. McGrenaghan and his partner, chef Colin Tooke, have realized that this is a problem. Launched in 2011, the wildly popular Parkdale taqueria has expanded with two outposts; one across from Trinity Bellwoods Park and another in the cottage region of Muskoka. A barbecue offshoot, Electric Mud, forced them to take a second look at what they were doing.
“The success of that restaurant started triggering questions in my head – seeing the volume of product we were going through,” Mr. McGrenaghan said. Proud of the organic and antibiotic-free meats they sourced, the owners arranged for their staff to take a tour of a slaughterhouse. Mr. McGrenaghan had seen animals killed before and wasn’t upset by that. But witnessing so much of it at once, connecting meat production with climate change and realizing their role in this supply chain, it suddenly wasn’t acceptable.
“Even if you’re okay with killing animals, the sheer volume of that was disconcerting.”
Also, the two were getting older, and not wanting to feel the sluggishness of a meat-heavy diet, or to own a restaurant where they didn’t feel comfortable eating more than once a month. So they closed Electric Mud.
Around the same time, they were planning to expand Grand Electric, the three locations of which serve about 650 meals a day, comprised overwhelmingly of meat.
“We were actually in discussion with an investor and close to inking it,” Mr. McGrenaghan says. “But we just couldn’t do it: all that meat and fish and grease and oil.”
Instead, they have decided to close their Bellwoods location, which does about half the sales of the flagship despite having 10 seats to Parkdale’s 80. It will reopen as Tacos Rico, serving vegetarian guisado, a style of taco filled with stewed ingredients. After that, they plan to overhaul the Parkdale menu to reduce its volume of meat.
Grand Electric’s owners are not the first Toronto restaurateurs to drive into this moral cul-de-sac. In 2016, Chase Hospitality Group chief executive Steven Salm came to the same awakening about selling meat. Mr. Salm’s strategy was to transition all his businesses, which include steak and seafood restaurants, to 25 per cent vegan menus.
“Straight vegetarian items have always sold well,” Mr. Salm says from Florida, where he is seeking to expand his Planta brand, a vegan restaurant he opened with chef David Lee.
“Today, the summer pea agnolotti on the menu at The Chase, that’s replacing the previous duck or lamb dish. So ultimately, every guest that’s ordering that is ordering a dish that previously was an animal protein.”
Most restaurateurs, however, own very small businesses, and do not have the resources for the kind of large-scale overhaul made by a group like Chase Hospitality.
Canadian comfort food restaurant Woodlot has offered a separate vegetarian menu since opening in 2010, and the Bloor Street restaurant Sabai Sabai features an alternate vegan menu of Thai favourites.
When the Soo family reached an impasse on how to serve less meat at their 49-seat Malaysian restaurant, they had to be more creative. Since 2013, Soos on Ossington Avenue has served a lot of red chili chicken wings, pork belly pancakes and rendang beef short ribs. A few years ago, partner Lauren Soo and her husband transitioned to a plant-based diet. As their vegan cooking migrated from dinner at home into staff meals, they questioned how their business could adapt.
They came up with a novel compromise.
On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Soos operates under the name Fat Choi, which allows the family to experiment with a vegan Malaysian concept without additional investment while building an audience for a potential second business.
When we think of switching to vegan cooking, we first picture how we’re going to replace the heavy, expensive proteins at the centre of dishes. Malaysian cuisine, an intersection of Southeast Asian cooking traditions, frequently depends on nam pla (fish sauce) and belacan (shrimp paste) as building blocks of flavour, posing an additional creative challenge in going animal-free.
“You have to give it a lot more love and thought when you’re doing vegan cooking,” says chef Tricia Soo, Lauren’s mother. “Because I can’t just put fish sauce and belacan or oyster sauce when I want.” Freshness, cooking in small batches, strong spices and an abundance of good produce – lemongrass, shallot, fresh turmeric, garlic, ginger, galangal – are built to shine, rather than understudy those big fishy flavours.
“So when you eat it, you don’t miss the shrimp paste. And then for umami, sometimes you can use bean sauce and miso.”
Sabai Sabai’s chef/owner Nuit Regular uses Healthy Boy brand tao jiew, a fermented soy bean paste, for that umami flavour.
“It can seem a little challenging to create dishes using more vegetables and less meat products, but once you know what to use, you will see it is very easy,” says Ms. Regular, who is planning a vegan menu for her restaurant Pai. “You can find these products fairly easily in Asian markets.”
For talented chefs, it’s not challenging to lean on the use of salt, sugar and fat to make food delicious.
When planning the original menu for Grand Electric, Mr. Tooke had wanted to make food that was addictive. Developing the dishes for Taco Rico, experimenting with rice and beans, Swiss chard and carrot mole tacos, his stomach is in a different place.
“When I was 25, I craved mayonnaise, spicy stuff and fat,” Mr. Tooke recalls. “I like beef. I like fried chicken. But do I need to eat this seven times a week? Or even once a week or month?” Having moved toward a more balanced diet, focused on vegetables, Mr. Tooke says he no longer craves that kind of rich eating. “The more I eat and cook this way, the more I find that vegetables can be enticing. That this stuff can be addicting. I find that now I crave this.”
Real change to our environment won’t come from individual consumer choices. Only policy can move the dial that much. But Mr. McGrenaghan understands that this reality doesn’t let restaurateurs off the hook.
“On a practical level, we will be directly impacting the food our customers consume. On a moral level, we hope to contribute to the idea that food businesses can be both positive forces for environmental change and successful,” Mr. McGrenaghan says. “Hopefully, other restaurateurs might say, okay, well, the guys from Grand Electric actually changed their entire menu and brand to make a positive change, so this is something that might be doable.”