Are vegans the new cannabis?

A niche market barrels into the mainstream.

Share this article!

“In 30 years or so, I believe we will be shocked [that] we killed animals en masse for food.”

Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines and space exploration fame wrote that statement last year in reference to his new company,  Memphis Meats, a startup that is developing lab-grown meat from animal cells instead of relying on animal slaughter. (The process is sometimes called “clean meat.”)

Branson may be one of the more famous avatars of the new alt-meat and vegan economy, but he’s hardly alone.

Fueled by health, environmental and animal welfare concerns — along with internet technologies that convey information (about slaughterhouses, climate change impacts) at lightning speed — the rate of people who identify as vegan has grown by 600% over the last three years, according to Global Data.

The market for the plant-based food sector was $3.1 billion in 2017, an 8.1% increase over 2016, according to data commissioned by Nielsen, a retail research company.

“What we’ve seen in the last five years is a monumental, seismic shift in consumer interest,” says Jaime Athos, CEO of Tofurky, the pioneering vegan foods company based in Hood River. 


Long an incubator of dining trends, Oregon is seeding a new generation of food entrepreneurs, whose nut milks and meat alternatives have become de rigueur at pitch-fest events here. Or, as Athos puts it affectionately, “a brand new weird vegan company starts up every  week.”

Restaurants are springing up apace — among them Portland’s Harlow, Farm Spirit and Aviv.

These venues are known as much for their innovative, flavorful cuisine as a plant-based focus. Meanwhile, vegan options are becoming the norm at “regular” restaurants.  Investors are circling the territory too. Alex Payne, best known as co-founder of banking startup Simple, is now a leading funder of vegan businesses, among them Bend-based Next Level Burger, a fast food chain that is going national this month. 

bc3f4acdb84d3e49780ab65420a5b7fc LVegan investors Nicole Brodeur and Alex Payne

Other notable Oregonians are championing the cause: One is  Craig McDougall, an internist at OHSU and son of the famous John McDougall, a Santa Rosa, California doctor who is considered by some to be the father of plant-based diets. 

“Plant-based diets 20 to 30 years ago — that was considered crazy,” says Craig, who often prescribes dietary changes first over drugs and surgery. “Now most people have a general sense of what I’m talking about, they are familiar with the benefits. We’ve come a long way.”

“What we’ve seen in the last five years is a monumental seismic shift in consumer interest. — Jaime Athos

Once considered a niche market, in which vegetarians and vegans were alternately defensive or judgmental, today’s vegan products and restaurants are thriving precisely because they appeal to an omnivore’s sensibility. Put simply, plants, historically known as fruits and vegetables, are in — whether you are vegan or not. 

In this diversified vegan 2.0 economy, carnivorous entrepreneurs invest in plant-only businesses, vegan restaurants flourish in conservative rural outposts like coastal North Bend, and the stodgy descriptor, “vegan,” is giving way to more fashionable and, dare we say, inclusive language: plant-based. 

Are vegans a fad? Possibly, but improbably, given the huge natural resource constraints facing the planet.

A more relevant question: Are plant-based foods the new cannabis?

The comparison is more than rhetorical. Thirty years ago, financiers would have been shocked, shocked, to consider investing in dairy-free milk and nut-based cheese. Not today, where the nut milk market alone will be valued at $28 billion by 2021, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts.

Click on the following links to read about the people and companies driving Oregon’s latest, lucrative green rush:

A fresh batch of vegan entrepreneurs

The vegan old guard moves seamlessly into the future

Small town vegans

The New Vegans: Natalie Padilla, Vacasa

The New Vegans: Thomas Allen, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt

The New Vegans:  Investors Alex Payne and Nicole Brodeur