In his sweet-smelling downtown apartment, Matthew Finateri carefully places a bright blue fondant moon onto a cloud of cupcake-top icing.
The vegan gluten-free vanilla-blueberry cupcakes — sparkling fondant moons and all — are just a test batch. If he thinks they’re good enough, they’ll be added to the menu of Tulip Baroo Vegan Catering, the catering company he started in February.
A registered home-based food operation, Tulip Baroo offers vegan gluten- and wheat-free cookies, cupcakes, squares and cakes.
He even bakes four-tier wedding cakes.
“You know those book order fliers you’d get in elementary school?” he says. “Well, I’d always go for the baking books. I’ve always been into baking. And I’m a vegan. I decided to do gluten- and wheat-free products because I saw the demand for them while I was working at The Sprout.”
From Tulip Baroo to the Happy Hummus Hut and Nourish Gluten Free Bakery, Finateri is part of a growing group of entrepreneurs catering to vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets.
For most, it’s a welcome change in the city’s culinary landscape. Five years ago, the dearth of meat-free menu items was a common beef — or lack thereof — for vegetarians, vegans and other people with special diets.
Finateri chuckles as he recalls his standard order at a typical restaurant.
“Chef’s salad with no cheese, no egg, no meat and Catalina dressing,” he says. “There wasn’t much else.”
Julia Bloomquist, owner of The Sprout restaurant, was a vegetarian when she moved here in 2003.
Her standard restaurant order before The Sprout: “Pasta and tomato sauce.”
When she opened The Sprout in 2005, it was the first full-fledged vegetarian restaurant in the city.
“When we were renovating the building, a lot of people walking by expressed doubt as to whether or not we’d succeed, having only vegetarian food on the menu,” she says. “People would say under their breath, ‘Oh, they’re nuts.’ I found that surprising because I knew that there was a market. But what I found the most surprising was that, when we opened, the majority of our clientele were meat eaters looking for variety in their diet. Some had suffered heart attacks or had health problems.”
Bloomquist says she has seen a real shift in people’s attitudes towards meat-free and other special diets.
“When I go to the grocery store and unload all my veggies and legumes, the people around me and the cashiers will say, ‘Good on you, girl,’” she says. “They used to say what a sin it was, as if I was depriving myself of a vital food source.”
The Sprout continues to serve mostly meat eaters who have adopted more meat-free meals into their diets, says Bloomquist.
And The Sprout team has always tried to encourage this: Bloomquist often takes phone calls from regulars who want to ask her about recipes or cooking tips, and the staff is always free to tell curious customers how menu items are made.
While Bloomquist hopes The Sprout has helped
St. John’s embrace more plant-based food, she sees a larger movement going on.
“There’s a new awareness that vegetarian cuisine can be super flavourful, and that it’s not challenging to make,” she says. “And of course there’s a re-emergence of the farming and gardening traditions, and setting up these little roadside gardens. People are really interested in varying their diets and incorporating fresh produce into their meals.”
Hlynn Kenny, the owner of the Happy Hummus Hut, which opened in June, is one such person.
“I had been on the Standard American Diet, and I had gotten up to a size 24,” says Kenny. “When I started changing my diet and incorporating more vegetarian and vegan foods, I was working downtown and there were very few fresh, healthy, affordable food alternatives.”
Kenny figured that if she was looking for new options, there were probably others looking for them, too. So she did a bit of market research and found that she was right.
She opened the Happy Hummus Hut, at 208 Duckworth St., where she serves vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free wraps, dips and desserts.
She agrees St. John’s is seeing a fresh change in its restaurant and bakery offerings.
“Things have come a long way,” she says. “And I think it’s just the information age. For me, making a switch out of the Standard American Diet was the result of information I got from friends, but switching to vegan food and learning how to eat it and prepare it so it tastes good, that all came from the Internet. I think that’s what’s making all the difference.”
Finateri agrees — he developed Tulip Baroo’s gluten-free flour mix from a basic mix he found on the Internet.
He says a wider knowledge about how food, especially wheat, is processed is inspiring people to turn to freshly grown, plant-based and gluten-free options.
“It all seems to be part of a wider food movement,” he says. “And it’s definitely bringing about a change for the better.”