How Restaurateur Pamela Elizabeth Is Trying to Change People's Thinking About Veganism
Pamela Elizabeth was 17 years old when she got a pamphlet in the mail that convinced her to be a vegetarian. Now she's one of the biggest vegan entrepreneurs in the country.
Pamela Elizabeth was 17 years old when she got a pamphlet in the mail that changed the course of her life. The flyer, from a place called the Fund for Animals, decried the animal practices surrounding factory farming—which was something Elizabeth had never thought about. “I immediately went vegetarian. That day,” she said. A few years later, she gave up dairy, too. Now Elizabeth runs a thriving vegan restaurant chain of eight (soon to be 10) restaurants, including several locations of Blossom and Blossom DuJour, plus Blossom Bakery and V-Note; she sells a line of frozen vegan food products at Whole Foods; and she’s working on a cookbook for early 2016. Food & Wine spoke to Elizabeth about her path to becoming a restaurateur, her philosophy on vegan conversion, and why a plant-based diet is so much more than brown rice and tofu.
How did you get into the vegan food industry? Did you always want to be a restaurateur?
Not at all. [Laughs.] I was an opera singer and I studied acting. But I became a vegan for moral reasons, and I wanted to encourage people to think about what they were eating. The original thought was just to open a little café with maybe four tables. One day, about ten years ago, my then-partner and I were walking around Chelsea and we stumbled upon this small Italian restaurant that was going out of business. That became the first Blossom restaurant. It happened in about two and a half months.
I had no restaurant experience. I wasn’t into cooking. When I think about it today, it seems crazy. But I had this passion that made the idea seem doable.
What were some of the early challenges for you, especially given that you didn’t have a food or business background?
Because it was a vegan restaurant, one of the earliest challenges was getting a lot of very… I don’t know what word to choose here… interesting feedback. Remember that this was almost a decade ago now. People weren't as aware about food-sourcing issues and vegan food. It was strange, because I went into the process of opening a vegan restaurant expecting that people would use their experience with our food as an opportunity to think about what they were eating and to consider incorporating vegan foods into their daily diet. That wasn’t happening in the beginning. After about a year, I was wondering if this was something I wanted to keep pursuing.
What changed? How did you get people to start thinking about the big picture?
Well, one thing that we write at the bottom of all of our menus, is “Blossom is first and foremost animal caring.” I think that helps spark conversation. I also think veganism has exploded in popularity over the past few years. People want to eat healthier. They’re starting to understand that sometimes that means cutting out meat products or dairy products. People want to know what they’re putting into their bodies, and a plant-based diet is something that isn’t threatening at all.
But I’ve also made myself a lot more visible than I used to be. I’ve started talking more about why I started Blossom. Factory farming is a reality. Most people don’t want animals to be hurt. I think if there are other food options that are delicious and satisfying, and if people are aware of them, then a shift will start to happen. I’ve started to talk about that more with the guests at the restaurant, and people very receptive.
What do you think is the most widespread misconception people have about eating vegan?
Oh gosh. [Laughs.] That it tastes bad or that it’s boring. I hear it all the time. "What is vegan food? Is it granola? Is it brown rice and tofu?" It’s so not that. It frustrates me when I pick up something vegan that says in quotes “Vegan,” and then it’s dry or doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t have to be like that and it shouldn’t be like that. It should be satisfying and comforting and just delicious food.
I also think there’s a bit of a cultural stigma, in terms of associating veganism with a certain lifestyle.
Absolutely. There's the Woodstock hippie association.
What do you do on the business side to combat that stigma, particularly in terms of selling your packaged goods at Whole Foods?
First of all, I think it’s so important to sell food options that are familiar to people, like a double chocolate brownie or an eggplant parmesan sandwich. That puts people at ease immediately. But ultimately, I think the best thing we can do is present the best food that we possibly can.
My goal is to offer people information about the vegan lifestyle—and if they're interested, well, that’s amazing. It’s not about trying to convince anybody to go vegan. I'm just trying to put the information out there. In that way, I hope, I can encourage people.