What can you get at a vegetarian butcher shop? A lot of what you can get at a regular butcher shop, actually. Chicken parmesan, bacon, crab cakes, lox and even plain old tuna salad line the deli counter at YamChops, a new vegetarian food shop on College Street in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood.
Billed as a "vegetarian butcher," YamChops offers customers vegetable-based protein dishes, most of which are designed to mimic or match the taste, texture and appearance of offerings you'd find at any other butcher shop in town, but with no animals harmed in the process. The bacon bits? They're made of coconut. The lox? Thinly sliced, pickled carrots.
"The vegetarians and vegans that come in, they see tuna for example, and they haven't had tuna for 20 years. They're overjoyed," said owner Michael Abramson of the customers who have streamed through the doors since it opened in early June.
The "vegetarian butcher" description also attracts the attention of flexitarians – people who don't eat a lot of meat or try to eat it less frequently – and even some people with no dietary restrictions at all, luring skeptics with free samples of each product.
Mr. Abramson estimated half or more of the customers who came in over the first week actually eat meat.
"A lot of people stand outside. They look at the sign. They try to figure out 'what the heck is a vegetarian butcher?' They come in with the same attitude on their face and then they eat their way down the counter. It's just wonderful."
There are limitations, of course; the Moroccan beef is surprisingly convincing but the coconut bacon bits, while crunchy and smoky, don't quite compare to a thick slice of the real deal. Some who oppose eating animals have even criticized the concept of faux meat for perpetuating the practice through mimicry (they make a similar argument against faux fur and fake leather). A semi-vegetarian myself (I eat seafood), I've always rolled my eyes at the prospect of pretend proteins. I've made the conscious decision not to eat meat, so why would I want some chickpeas smooshed into the shape of a pork chop when I could just eat the legumes as they are?
But Mr. Abramson shrugs off the criticism, saying that for those who do miss the taste, texture or look of the food they grew up eating, it's nice to have options, adding he's not trying to fool anybody. "I'm not saying I'm trying to copy meat or fish recipes, I just want to see what I can do to come close to them."
Mr. Abramson, who has been a vegetarian for 39 years, ran an advertising agency for most of his career but always loved to cook. He sought out professional training to hone his skills, earning three degrees in professional vegetarian cuisine, plant-based cooking and natural foods.
A labour of love, YamChops was supposed to be a fun project he could try out with his family – his wife and two daughters work for the shop – before retirement to show off his cooking skills and experiment with recipes. But he and his family have been blown away by the attention they've received, gleefully showing off a wall of printed-off e-mails from would-be customers around the world begging them to open up a shop in their country. On a recent Wednesday, a dozen or so customers streamed in and out over the course of an hour.
There are about 200,000 vegetarians in the GTA, estimated David Alexander, executive director of the Toronto Vegetarian Association. He said with that many people and evidence from big grocery store suppliers that customers want other options – he pointed to President's Choice's expanding line of frozen faux meats – a business like YamChops makes sense.
"The demand must be there and it's not just vegetarians," Mr. Alexander said. "It's also people who are looking for stuff that's a little bit healthier but still familiar to what they're used to cooking with."
Along with the deli counter offerings, which range in price from $2.29 per 100 grams for the lentil daal to $4.99 for the lox, the shop has prepared salads, frozen foods and fresh, cold-pressed juice. The creative concoctions are intriguing, but the label of "vegetarian butcher" is what has drawn the most attention. While Mr. Abramson says it's mostly just a gimmick, some people were offended by him using the term "butcher" when no meat is involved. One story online about the shop garnered multiple testy comments.
But Peter Sanagan, who runs a traditional butcher shop in Kensington Market, said it's not keeping him up at night.
"All the best to them. I really don't have anything negative to say about that," Mr. Sanagan said, laughing at the online criticism. "Aren't there more important things to worry about?"