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Jacksonville Restaurants Offer Vegan Options, Grow Their Business

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Lindsey Kilbride
/
WJCT News
Nacho Taco owner Mehmet Shefoglu said vegan and vegetarian dishes, like vegan chicken tacos, make up 30 percent of his sales.

For vegans in Jacksonville, it’s getting easier and easier to find friendly menus when dining out.

That’s partially because restaurants are seeing their bottom line grow when they adapt for those who don’t eat animal products, including milk, cheese or eggs.

Mehmet Shefoglu owns the Riverside restaurant Nacho Taco and he’s recently added a vegan section to the menu.

One afternoon he was cooking up a customer favorite, vegan chicken tacos  He uses imitation chicken and vegan cheese, which can be made from soy protein.

Shefoglu opened Nacho Taco about a year ago. The tiny place on Stockton Street started by serving up the expected steak and chicken burritos and chimichangas.

But months ago a vegan customer brought in some imitation meat, made from soybeans, and asked him to cook it. Then he started keeping it in stock.

“It was kind of like a hidden menu for people, but so many started talking about it that it went straight from being something that we just kind of did for a few people to a lot of people coming in and visiting us because of that,” he said.

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Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
Nacho Taco vegan chicken tacos are dressed with vegan sour cream and vegan cheese.

Now dishes with imitation chorizo sausage and chicken are a permanent part of the menu.

Shefoglu said he quickly learned accommodating vegans isn't that hard.

“We mostly use olive oil and things that are vegetarian and vegan friendly,” he said.

Vegan and vegetarian orders now account for about 30 percent of Nacho Taco sales and Shefoglu said that number is growing.

And for restaurants that need more persuading, there’s a local movement to get more of them to carry vegan dishes.

“Whether it’s helping them come up with some ideas of some things that they can do or just labeling their menu more clearly,” said Jessica Campbell, a paralegal by day and during her offtime, the creator of Jax Vegan Love.

She considers herself a “vegan enthusiast.” She meets with restaurant owners and chefs to tell them the vegan community wants to eat out and ask them “Will you make that easier?”

“I think sometimes they’re scared to do a faux-version of something that maybe you’ll be turned off by or that you’re not going to consider it high-quality because it’s something that is partially store bought and not created by their hand, from scratch,” she said. If that’s the case, she’ll ask them to try one vegan dish as a special to see how it goes. She promises to promote specials on social media to her several thousand followers.

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Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
A fried vegan sushi roll with imitation pork and cream cheese is a customer favorite at Sushiko.

“I would say that Sushiko in Avondale is my biggest success story,” she said.

That’s Sushiko, a sushi restaurant.

Manager Ellie Li was reading from a menu of 39 vegan sushi rolls after the lunch rush one afternoon.

“We have a complete vegan menu,” she said. “We have  a lot of options for vegans like to appetizers, entrees, sushi rolls.”

The rolls are stuffed with veggies, tofu, imitation meat, non-dairy cream cheese, and vegan versions of shrimp and eel sauces. It’s a whole lot more variety than the typical asparagus or cucumber rolls vegans usually have to choose from.

“They (would) rather have the foods cooked, like crispy and fried with the sauce,” Li said.

Li said 15 to 20 people order from the vegan menu every day .

“Now it seems like (some) people are not vegan, but they will order the rolls to try and see if they like the options,” she said.

And Jax Restaurant Review blogger Jerry Watterson can attest to that. He hosts about three six-course dinner events at Jacksonville restaurants every month.

“When we do vegan events, 60 percent of the rooms not vegan,” he said, “which people wouldn’t expect, but we have more people that are looking to eat a little healthier, maybe a little fun and  unique, not the things that you see on a menu every day.”

He now offers an all-vegan “foodie adventure dinner” event each month. Turns out, those events are the most popular and sell out the quickest.

Listen to this story on Redux

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.