Blog: Phillis Engelbert

In Portland, Ore., empty parking lots make for good food cart pods. In Ann Arbor, empty parking lots are tailgate heaven but food carts are mostly verboten. This week, Phillis Engelbert, co-owner of vegan food cart The Lunch Room, writes on how food carts could have an easier road into the community.

Vegan To Go

My food cart is one of the first you see as you enter Mark's Carts: it is a wood-paneled cabin-like structure called The Lunch Room. Although not posted anywhere on the cart, it's an open secret that The Lunch Room is vegan. Our lack of announcement reflects the split reaction to the word "vegan." For vegans or vegan-leaning vegetarians, discovering a vegan eatery is a cause for celebration. For many other people, it can mean "lettuce and sprouts" or "don't eat here."

The Lunch Room serves vegan food because its owners (myself and business partner Joel Panozzo) are vegan. We have given up meat by choice and dairy by necessity (we are both lactose intolerant)… ergo vegan. We also believe that a plant-based diet is healthiest. But we do not accept that veganism means giving up exciting or hearty food. The mission of The Lunch Room is to provide fresh, healthy, plant-based and mouth-watering delicious food that satisfies and leaves you planning your next visit. Our food offerings are meant to appeal to a universal audience: Pad Thai; BBQ tofu sliders; chili; hummus & red pepper wraps; kids' meals; biscuits, "sausage," & gravy; and desserts including cookies, pies and ice cream sandwiches attract not only yoga instructors, but also construction workers.

Being a vegan in Washtenaw County, particularly in Ann Arbor, while still challenging, is a lot easier than in many other places. Here there are a handful of restaurants that cater to vegetarians and vegans. There is an abundance of fresh, locally grown produce and a community-supported agriculture movement that links consumers directly with farmers. And there are vegan social and activist networks one can join. Of course, eating out is still a challenge. Dinner with a group of friends often means ordering the one thing on the menu that can be made vegan by the elimination of several ingredients (think taco salad without the ground beef, shredded cheese or sour cream). But compared to much of the Midwest, Ann Arbor is a vegan mecca.

If national indicators are correct, veganism is entering the mainstream. Many celebrities, most notably Ellen Degeneres, Bill Clinton, and Alicia Silverstone, have taken the leap. From 2004 to 2010, the search term "vegan" saw a huge increase according to Google trends. There have been several well-publicized cases of super-athletes going vegan. And a vegan diet has gained the stamp of approval of dietetic and medical associations. Veganism does appear to be on the rise. At The Lunch Room we are excited to ride and promote this wave.