Welcome to paradise — vegan paradise.
Twin Cities Veg Fest is an event that ignites overwhelming excitement, sending butterflies to a vegan’s stomach as they walk through the gates.
A one-day affair that lasted from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., this year's festival kicked off on Sunday with a record-breaking crowd, a host of new vendors and a new location.
Veg Fest started in 2012. Back then, the event was held in the University of Minnesota's Coffman Union.
This year’s Veg Fest took place at Harriet Island Regional Park in St. Paul, an even larger space than last year’s festival location of Como Regional Park.
Unny Nambudiripad graduated from the University in 1998. He went on to become one of three founding members of the nonprofit behind Veg Fest: Compassionate Action for Animals.
Nambudiripad was an early pioneer of veganism, adopting the diet in 1997. Since then, veganism has entered mainstream status.
According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 9 percent of U.S. adults identify as vegetarian or vegan.
And Veg Fest seems to prove the community is growing. One vendor, These Wingz?, came all the way from Chicago to sell their seitan barbecue wings.
The festival acts as a hotbed for new vegans and those transitioning to veganism.
Betsy Carter is a mother of two who became vegan in July. She brought her 6-year-old daughter Kaleya to Veg Fest on Sunday.
“What’s really great about getting back to vegetarianism and now veganism is that we’re learning where our food comes from,” Carter said.
“The kids would ask me questions about how this or that vegetable would grow, and I would think I’d know the answer but then we would look it up on the internet and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, that grows on a tree, or that grows in a bush, or that grows upside down.’ I was amazed by how little I knew.”
Carter says she is slowly introducing vegan food into her children’s diet. She never tells them it’s vegan – it’s just food.
Carter and her daughter arrived at the festival around 11 a.m., right when the doors opened. She stood in line for nearly an hour waiting to order at the Herbivorous Butcher. The popular stand had long lines during the entire festival.
Still, the wait was worth it for Carter, who said she “really liked” Herbivorous Butcher’s vegan cheese curds.
Anagloria Quintanar was at Veg Fest with her friend, Eriverto Vargas. Quintanar has been a vegan since March.
“It’s my way of reducing my footprint,” Quintanar said.
Though Vargas, a self-proclaimed foodie, is neither vegan nor vegetarian, he says he didn’t mind eating the food at Veg Fest. “I had a gyro from the J. Mobile. It was very filling and a very satisfying meal,” he said.
Vargas also said the meat substitute in the gyro didn’t bother him.
“It actually makes me feel a little bit better. It’s supposed to be good for you, so that’s even better for me,” he said.
“Your skin is glowing,” said Quintanar, laughing.
Arthur Goldstein and Blake Boutte were volunteers at the festival. The two are active in the Twin Cities's vegan meet-up scene.
Both men have different reasons for not eating meat. Goldstein has been a vegetarian for more than 30 years. “It seemed easier than keeping Kosher,” he said.
Boutte grew up in Louisiana. “I grew up eating meat my whole life,” he said.
One specific hunting trip was transformative for Boutte. “I shot a bird once and it made me feel terrible,” he said. “I never wanted to do it again.”
Nambudiripad is happy to see something that began in his senior year at the University turn into such a lively community event. Though, he said, there's still a lot more work to do. “Meat production on a per capita basis is at an all-time high in this country. And it’s been going up for the past two years,” he said.
Including the 22 food vendors and 9 food trucks, there were over 100 exhibitors at the festival, including Animal Rights Coalition, Wild Paws Midwest Animal Sanctuary and Good Karma Foods, a company that focuses on making plant-based yogurt and milk from flax seeds.
“What I really love and appreciate the most about the festival and about the movement of veganism is that I see a lot of positive energy and people responding when they see cruelty to animals,” Nambudiripad said. “[It feels] like the celebration of a powerful change in society, rather than pointing fingers at people or getting really dark about how things are.”