Regional: Ann Arbor restaurants among more than 60 venders at annual VegFest  

By James Olsen

No animals were harmed in the writing of the following article.

Herbivores took over the Suburban Collection Showcase for the 20th annual VegFest in Novi on Sunday, April 28. More than 60 vendors from all over Michigan, as well as Ohio and Chicago, gathered to pass out homemade vegan goodies to a crowd of approximately 6,000 attendees.

VegFest celebrates vegan lifestyle and cuisine and provides attendees with an opportunity to explore new foods and gain a deeper understanding about veganism.

“It’s great to see so many people interested in the vegan lifestyle and a healthier way of living,” said Sim Sethi, of the Earthen Jar restaurant located on Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor. The Earthen Jar has been a vendor at VegFest for nine years and Sethi has enjoyed being a part of opening people’s minds to new food.

“Everybody is just happy and feeling good about themselves,” Sethi said. “It’s nice to see some people dipping their toes in the water and getting a feel for it.”

Vedge Café is no stranger to first-time vegans either. Located on Main Street in Ann Arbor, they began their business because they wanted to show people that vegan food can taste good and be just as satisfying as a carnivorous diet.

Actress Alicia Silverstone

“The best customer we get is probably one that is not vegan, and their curious, and they’re just amazed that this could be made from plants,” said Amanda Ratke, owner operator of Vedge Café.

Ratke takes pleasure in watching new customers make the transition to veganism and seeing them become repeat customers, getting updated on their progress.

“Seeing customers enjoy the food brings a smile to my face, that’s what I’m super passionate about,” Ratke said.

Vedge Café has been a vendor at VegFest for three years and for Ratke, the most important part their involvement with the festival is being connected to the community and to show people that vegan food is available.

The crowd at VegFest 2019 ranged from kids to seniors, vegan and non-vegan alike. Like George Parker who has attended the annual event with his vegan wife, Norma, three times.

“She’s a vegan and I’m a heathen,” Parker said with a smirk.

Mrs. Parker started her vegan diet as a young adult in the 70s. And even though Mr. Parker isn’t ready to fully join the vegan community, he enjoys attending with his wife and trying all the food.

The food wasn’t the only highlight of the day. Celebrities, athletes, and doctors came to spread information about the benefits of eating a plant-based, vegan diet. Like Hollywood actress Alicia Silverstone, who loves being involved and getting people excited about this movement.

Sim Sethi, of the Earthen Jar in Ann Arbor.

“I want people to know how fun and easy and yummy and chic this whole experience is,” Silverstone said. “How you can actually feel your best and look your best and be healing yourself all at the same time.”

Silverstone, who has been vegan since she was 21, says even if people struggle with the diet change at first, it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Just giving up meat for a few nights a week would be a huge improvement.

“Sometimes you mess up, but you get right back on, and that’s really inspiring and exciting,” Silverstone said.

The event also featured Dr. Michael Greger who is a plant-based doctor, author, and speaker. His involvement in the event and the movement is altruistic.

“I want to save lives,” Greger said. “I’m a doctor, that’s what I do.

Greger has been speaking at VegFest ever since he began public speaking and says it’s one of his favorite gigs.

Detroit Red Wings’ nutritionist Lisa McDowell also spoke about what people can learn from the dieting practices of pro athletes. Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader and his wife, Julie, joined her on stage to speak about their experiences.

“Everybody needs to listen to their body and figure out what works for them,” Abdelkader said.

Lisa McDowell, Justin Abdelkader and Julie Abdelkader.

The 32-year-old hockey star isn’t 100 percent vegan but said he started to make changes in his diet when he noticed the benefits in his performance on the ice.

“We need to fuel our body and fuel it the right way,” said Abdelkader.

VegFest is operated by the non-profit group Veg Michigan, which also holds other smaller talks and food tasting events throughout the year.

“The reason why I really believe in Veg Michigan is there are a lot of national groups that promote a plant-based diet, but it’s really good when you can have a small event, one-on-one, where people can come and ask questions and build relationships with people,” said Tom Progar, president of Veg Michigan.

According to Forbes magazine, one of the top science trends in healthy eating is a plant-based diet. Progar says that Michigan is unique in that it has a non-profit organization that promotes plant-based, vegan diet all year long.

“Our goal is to get as many people to adopt this diet or at least move in this direction,” Progar said. “We try to share educational resources, so people can make a choice that’s best for them. Letting people know the options that are out there.”

Photos by Lauryn Carroll

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