Vegetarian Food Festival a Treat for Those Willing to Wait

What is it that makes New Yorkers line up outside a big anonymous building before ten on a Sunday morning? The most obvious answer would be a newly released gadget or discount designer clothes. But this Sunday, April 3rd, the reason behind this long stretch of people was something quite different: A Vegetarian Food Festival. This free event was held at the Altman Building in Chelsea, filling up two floors with everything from raw nut-based ice cream to mock-meatballs.

With more than 3,500 visitors wedged inside (and many more unable to get in), the displays and main floor were jammed.

According to a study published by Vegetarian Times in 2008, 3.2 percent of adults in the United States, or 7.3 million people, are following a vegetarian-based diet. The study also indicated that the most common reason behind this choice is to improve one’s overall health, closely followed by environmental concerns. At the first annual Vegetarian Food Festival in New York, the many different sides of a vegetarian lifestyle were represented, bringing out a message from the founders: A vegetarian lifestyle can be both fun and tasty. And with approximately 3,500 visitors and a good 2,000 more that never got further than the line, the interest for the festival had grown bigger than the founders ever expected.

The Vegetarian Food Festival was the brainchild of Sarah Gross, for whom this was not the first act in promoting animal rights and a vegan lifestyle. In 2010, Gross founded Rescue Chocolate, which produces vegan chocolate and donates its profits to animal rescue organizations around the country.

After a trip to Boston’s Vegetarian Food Festival last fall, Gross decided to launch a food fest in New York. She contacted her friend Nira Paliwoda, an event planner, and the two vegetarians began promoting the event on Facebook and Twitter.

The social media sites helped Gross and Paliwoda attract volunteers and sponsors, including animal rights group PETA and Yelp, the Internet search and review engine.

Admission was free, and vendors paid to have stands. In addition to the free food samples given out, the vendors had the chance to sell products and bigger food portions.

“Most vendors were happy to pay a small fee to make the festival possible, and also saw it as a great opportunity to promote their products,” Gross explained. “So in the end, it was a win-win situation for both us and them.”

Vegan marshmallows by Sweet and Sara were some of the sweet treats at the festival.

Sixty-two vendors, including vegetarian and vegan restaurants, offered their wares. Many promoted local products, such as homemade tofu and fruit snacks made in Brooklyn. People were eager to sample the different foods and drinks, and the response was mixed. One young man grimaced after sampling raw kombucha, an ancient fermented tea drink that some people believe promotes health. “I have no idea what I just drank, but it sure tasted healthy,” he said.

Dessert was the festival’s main attraction.

“I always thought vegan food was super healthy and bad tasting,” said Pat Andrews, who describes himself as a “real meat eater” and says he came just to keep his wife company. After sampling a green tea cupcake, he said it was “one of the best I have ever had – and it’s vegan!”

For those with an extra sweet tooth, the festival offered not only one, but two moments to stop even the worst sugar-cravings: Cupcake- and doughnut-eating competitions.

One highlight of the festival was a donut-eating contest. Cheered on by the crowd, Karen Hoffman, at right end of table, won by eating six donuts.

Karen Hoffman won the latter, besting three competitors by polishing off six doughnuts, cheered on by a crowd of onlookers.

The doughnuts were supplied by Dun-Well, a new vegan bakery based in Manhattan, that supplied five dozen doughnuts, with flavors including strawberry-coconut and chocolate peanut.

”We wish we could have had our own stand and let everyone try our doughnuts,” said Dan Dunbar, a co-founder of Dun-Well. “But with the limited capacity for doughnut making that we have for the moment, baking enough donuts for an eight-hour-long event did not seem manageable or economically smart.”

Visitors could also sample heartier fare.

Foodswings, a Brooklyn based vegan fast-food restaurant, served mac'n'cheese that disappeared in a rapid pace.

Foodswings, a Brooklyn-based vegan fast-food restaurant, offered variations on traditional American comfort food, with mock meatball sandwiches and vegan mac’n’cheese, with no dairy products. “The creamiest mac’n’cheese I ever had!” a woman in the crowd said, as her friend nodded, forking up another mouthful of gooey macaroni.

Despite all the food-vendors at the festival, the event was about more than eating. Making way trough the crowded festival-space, it felt nice to regularly pause at a stand providing information instead of food. This did not only mean fewer elbows in your sides, but also a refreshing break for your taste buds. Amie Hamlin, executive director for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, handed out flyers promoting vegetarian, organic and local food in schools. Other exhibitors advocated animal rights, sustainable living and spiritual connection.

The event also featured dance, yoga, live music and lectures, with speakers talking about topics including vegan cooking and sustainable lifestyles. Alexandra Jamieson discussed her books Vegan Cooking for Dummies and The Great American Detox Diet, while Chloe Jo Davis, creator of GirlieGirlArmy, a Web-based guide to green living, discussed eco-friendly fashion.

The Vegetarian Food Festival was a well greeted new event to the foodie-scene of New York. But for the next year, a bigger and even better organized event would be welcomed. An hour before the festival closed, the line still stretched for two blocks, and those outside were turned away. But those who made it in seemed pleased.

“Me and my friend waited in line for over one hour to get in here, but it was definitely worth it,” said 22-year-old Maria McKinley, who came to the festival with her friend Luca Gonzales.” “The doughnut-eating competition was the best. It was gross but fun in its weird way. And who would have thought ‘vegan hippies’ do something like that?”

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5 Responses to Vegetarian Food Festival a Treat for Those Willing to Wait

  1. Sabrina says:

    I totally wanted to attend the festival, this has convinced me not to miss it next time.
    Thanks, Elsa!

  2. ying says:

    I totally agree with Sabrina. I really want to go to this festival next time it comes around! Great article!

  3. Elsa says:

    Thanks for the positive response! The festival was definitely worth a visit, and I look forward to next years event. Hopefully it will be held at a bigger place, so that no one will have to wait in line for two hours…

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