On his last visit to Portland, Jan Bredack could have passed for a German tourist lost under the city’s Burnside Bridge.
“I’m not exactly sure which one it is,” said Bredack, squinting up at two still-skeletal high-rises jutting into the blue Oregon sky.
It was late September and Bredack, decked out in a white polo shirt, white Capri pants and white shoes, was scheduled to meet Jeff Pickhardt, the developer behind the Yard, a high-profile project wedging shining residential towers right next to a busy bridge on the gritty east bank of the Willamette River.
But since it was the German businessman’s first time to Portland, he didn’t know the precise location of what is likely to become the U.S. flagship location of his rapidly expanding vegan supermarket chain.
“We have to come to Portland, it’s the perfect place for us,” Bredack said while discussing his ambitious plans with Pickhardt during a short stop on a West Coast tour with his wife, Maja.
With its foodie and vegan credentials – including two vegan strip bars – Portland seems a good fit for Veganz, as Bredack’s chain is known.
Starting with just one store in Berlin in 2011, it now has eight branches across Germany, as well as locations in Vienna and Prague. And if all goes to plan, the prominent location in Portland will pave the way for a string of seven all-vegan supermarkets stretching from Vancouver to Santa Monica.
The Veganz store below the company headquarters in Berlin
Bredack’s ambition is nothing less than to become the premier conduit for vegan products between North America and Europe. “America has really great meat alternative items, but Europe has better chocolate and sweets,” he said, explaining his transatlantic business model.
Though Pickhardt at first seemed reluctant having a reporter privy to his first meeting with Bredack, he said hoped Veganz could help lend the eco-themed Yard project a more European sensibility.
“I’m interested in the style of living in Europe where you maybe go shopping each day,” said Pickhardt. “Not going to Costco and stocking up with everything. We talked about having like-minded retailers involved.”
A play on the German word “ganz,” meaning “totally” or “completely,” Veganz has grown swiftly in just a few years. Bredack has adeptly tapped the increasing demand for animal-free products and paired it with eager investor money to build a food retailing empire. The chain is expecting turnover to top €40 million, or $43 million, in 2016.
The concept is simple: A customer can fill her shopping cart with bratwurst, ice cream, even condoms – and everything is guaranteed to be entirely vegan.
“We are completely mainstream,” Bredack said during an interview at the Veganz headquarters in eastern Berlin last fall.
With wholesale playing an increasingly important part of his business, Bredack hopes to cut deals with big U.S. retail chains such as Whole Foods long before the Portland Veganz store opens in the summer of 2017. “It’s too much effort for just one store,” he said.
Sporting his signature black hoodie with the green Veganz logo on the breast, the silver-haired 43-year-old conveyed a surprisingly harmonious mix of relaxed hectic.
On the wall above him was a photocopied quote in a small gold frame attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
But to achieve mainstream success from a niche nutritional lifestyle, the formerly hard-charging auto industry executive hasn’t shied from shaking up the tight-knit vegan world in his native Germany. There he has been criticized for both his unbridled capitalism and alleged lack of commitment to organic farming.
“Vegan is the new organic,” he quipped from his office in Berlin’s scrappy Friedrichshain district, still home to many leftists and anarchists.
His German flagship store, located just below Veganz corporate headquarters, regularly has to replace broken windows and has even had to deal with butyric acid attacks in the past.
And German internet forums are teeming with critics complaining about Bredack’s betrayal of vegan “ideology for profit,” apparently oblivious that vegan capitalism is his ideology. Still others have tried to sully his name by mentioning the fact that his brother is a prominent and proud far-right extremist.
Bredack says he’s broken off contact to his neo-Nazi sibling. But considering he also had an abusive father who worked for the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police, perhaps it’s lucky he opted instead for the benign dogma of veganism.
A former executive for the commercial truck division of German automaker Daimler (which has its U.S. headquarters in Portland), Bredack became a vegetarian after experiencing career burnout and an existential life crisis in 2008. His girlfriend at the time convinced him to go meat-free, but he quickly decided that was not enough and became fully vegan, meaning he also eschews dairy, eggs and any other animal byproducts.
“It took me three months to make the switch. I wanted to remove all animal suffering from my plate,” Bredack explained.
Despite all the static from the militant fringes, Bredack has clearly won over many vegan activists in Germany during his four years in business.
“I think Veganz is fantastic,” said Anna-Lena Klapp, a tattooed 26-year-old with tattoos and short blonde hair shopping at a branch in Berlin. “We want veganism to become mainstream. I used to have to order everything online.”
That same day, a long line formed in front of a Veganz food truck selling all-vegan cheeseburgers on Alexanderplatz, the austere square at the heart of what was once communist East Berlin. Normally, mobile bratwurst venders with sizzling sausage grills strapped to their bodies dominate the concrete-heavy space.
But if Bredack can convince even meat-loving Germans to forgo sausage and schnitzel, then perhaps he is on to something.
Bredack stresses his main sales demographic is the omnivore population. But part of Veganz’ appeal to Pickhardt, a former journalism student turned successful Oregon property developer, is that it’s exotic to this hemisphere.
Pickhardt connected with Bredack via Seth Tibbot, the man behind the popular meat alternative Tofurky. Both the tofu tycoon and the developer are based an hour outside Portland in picturesque Hood River.
“Seth is the kind of guy you have to listen to,” said Pickhardt, who started out as Tibbot’s landlord before building Tofurky’s new eco-friendly headquarters nestled on the banks of the Columbia River.
Inside that modern and modest office, adorned with a framed Native American peace pipe owned by his grandfather and an “I ª Vegan Girls” button, an affable Tibbot explained how he originally toyed with the idea of opening an educational “Veggieland” attraction prizing the joys of meat-free living in central Portland. But eventually, he decided Veganz might be a better fit for Pickhardt’s project.
“Jeff is not your typical developer. He’s driven by sincere ecological sense,” said Tibbot.
Tibbot’s son first discovered Veganz while doing market research for his company’s meat alternatives in Europe. In just a few years, Bredack’s enterprise has become crucial to Tofurky’s business across the Atlantic.
“I think the Germans are visionaries in so many ways,” he said. “I find Jan and the Veganz people mission driven. Yes, they’re businessmen, but their core mission is very authentic.”
But not everyone is pleased by the prospect of a Teutonic interloper shaking up Portland’s cozy vegan scene.
The tattooed employees at Food Fight, billed as the city’s only all-vegan grocery store, were decidedly downcast on a Tuesday afternoon when asked about the German chain coming to town. And no wonder: Though part of a hip “vegan mall” replete with a bakery and clothing shops, their store is stocked with many of the same products that a much larger Veganz supermarket will soon offer a mere 10-minute bike ride away.
Though German-style radical protest is unlikely in the giddily capitalist United States, Bredack’s ambitious plans have undoubtedly riled the indigenous vegan community.
Bredack paid Food Fight an unannounced visit during his last trip to Portland, but after an employee recognized him, the store’s owner, Chad Miller, approached him and expressed his concerns. Despite their common commitment to the vegan cause, there would appear to be little love lost between the two.
Miller, for his part, is trying to remain phlegmatic about the impending arrival of the Veganz juggernaut on his doorstep.
“It’ll hurt us for sure, but other than that, I don’t really have much to offer,” he said in an email exchange. “We are just going to keep doing what we do and keep trying to support the community and hopefully when the time comes, they won’t forget about us.”
The Yard building in Portland, the likely spot for the U.S. flagship store
Pickhardt apparently offered Food Fight retail space at Yard, but Miller said he had declined. Perhaps the internecine animosity will dissipate once Veganz arrives in Portland. Michele Hengst, who has been tasked with building the company’s U.S. wholesale operations, said she was attempting to deescalate tensions between the two vegan groups.
“I don’t want the community against us when we’re new in a city,” she said during a visit to Portland in March.
Portland Monthly magazine recently reported that local vegans had been “warring” for months over what the arrival of the “big, bad Germans” would mean for the likes of local heroes Food Fight.
But the situation isn’t likely to cause Bredack many sleepless nights regardless.
Standing in front of the massive Burnside Bridge building site, the German entrepreneur suddenly no longer seemed like a lost tourist. “To them, we are the enemy,” he said with a shrug.
Apparently, he is familiar and comfortable in that role.
Marc Young is a Portland-based writer. Before moving to Portland last year, he was a long-time foreign correspondent in Germany.