“That’s the way you should go into a business…going into it delusional.”
This is how Megan Pope describes her and business partner Ali Magee’s choice to open RAW Market & Eatery, a vegan restaurant right on Kensington Road.
Pope and Magee have always been believers in plant-based diets, but it took them moving from Toronto to Calgary, a notoriously meat-centric city, to open their vegan restaurant — which has been surprisingly successful.
Sitting along the wooden bar top at RAW, Pope wears jeans and a navy blue sweater — a thrown-together braid gracing her shoulder. Magee wears a similar combo with long dirty blonde hair. Keeping an eye on the door for customers, they reminisce about their unconventional path to becoming business owners.
The duo met in Edmonton. Pope was studying science and nutrition at the University of Alberta, while Magee was studying broadcasting at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Roommates at the time, they weren’t eating animal products — each for their own reasons — but didn’t label themselves as vegan or even vegetarian.
“I didn’t even know what a vegan was, but we pretty well were,” says Pope.
Yet Pope was utilizing what she was learning in school to make creative, plant-based recipes at home with unique ingredients.
“This is about 2011 or something. So it was more unheard of to be baking with black beans,” says Magee.
After university, they both found themselves in Toronto, where healthy food trends were more common. Although the market for plant-based eating was greater there, Magee found the food wasn’t all that different from the dishes Pope had been making from their kitchen in Edmonton.
“I was like, ‘Wow, Megan actually makes way better stuff than what I’m trying,’” she says.
This is when the idea to open their own plant-based business started to take shape. The already saturated market in Toronto served as an incentive to come back to Alberta and start the business in a city with a less prominent vegan community.
“We definitely had reservations, but I think it was also motivation as well because we wanted to have a large impact on a group that hadn’t been impacted in that way before,” says Pope.
But establishing themselves as a meatless eatery in Calgary wasn’t easy. According to a 2018 Dalhousie survey, of the 2.3 million Canadians who consider themselves vegetarian, and the 850,000 who consider themselves vegan, the prairie provinces have the smallest population of meatless eaters.
“That’s where our delusion comes in. We were like, ‘It’ll be fine, [veganism is] trending everywhere,’” says Pope. “It wasn’t […] It was like tumbleweeds. We were like, ‘Oh, nobody is vegan, and there’s no options and we’re starting from scratch in a population of cowboys.’”
Benefits of eating more plants
While vegans and vegetarians are still the minority, especially in Alberta, the new version of the Canadian Food Guide is a resource that advocates eating more plant-based foods for both health and environmental reasons.
The guide recommends filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables. This is in response to studies, such as one published in 2017 by the Canadian Journal of Public Health, which found that over three-quarters of Canadians are not consuming the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.
Moreover, the guide recommends people choose “protein foods that come from plants more often.” That’s for health reasons.
But the guide also states “an eating pattern that is higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods can decrease the negative impacts of food on the environment.”
In fact, a special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption — highlighting plant-based diets as a “major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change.”
These recommendations come at a time when Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, has noticed a national trend in Canadians turning to alternative protein foods.
Charlebois says Alberta is not going to abandon its beloved beef altogether.
“I actually do think that people will just see Alberta beef differently, as a natural unprocessed wholesome product,” he says.
However, people are likely to start seeing meat as more of a luxury, rather than an everyday essential. “I think the food guide kind of confirmed a trend. It put an exclamation mark to what was already going on.”
A new perspective
In fact, both Pope and Magee have seen Calgarians become more open to the idea of plant-based meals since they opened their doors four years ago.
“When we first opened, it was us,” Magee said. “We were the target audience.”
But now the clientele is a reflection of a much wider demographic.
“It’s really inspiring to see the clientele, that change. [We get] a lot of middle-aged dads who watched a documentary and they’re ready to start their health journey and their veganism,” says Pope.
The changing clientele is reflected through positive online reviews from self-declared “carnivores” as well.
“I’m about the furthest thing from a vegan/healthy eater,” one Zomato reviewer says. “If more places like this existed, I’m quite certain the world would be a healthier place.”
Another reviewer says, “I think even the very carnivorous would enjoy a meal here.”
Despite the initial shock, both Pope and Magee are heartened seeing a more diverse group of Calgarians becoming interested in plant-based foods.
“We’re so happy to provide that platform for A: education and B: just showcasing that food that is vegan is good and healthy food can taste good,” says Pope. “It’s cool when you have a captive audience.”