Small town vegans

The Cornbread Cafe in Eugene

Conservative rural areas are more resistant to veganism, research shows. Tell that to North Bend, Klamath Falls and Springfield.

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“People assume an all-vegan place would not make it in a rural area,” says restaurateur Sheree Walters, who plans to open a second outpost of her Eugene venue, Cornbread Cafe, in Springfield this summer.

“There’s truth to that; there are fewer people. But I believe it’s coming. The momentum is huge.”

cornbreadcafe2Even meat eaters flock to the Cornbread Cafe in Eugene

Vegan-friendly eaters from Springfield and neighboring communities asked Walters to open the 3,000-square-foot location, which will feature the same all-vegan menu in a location three times as big as the original, a drive in featuring plant based takes on Southern classics.

Assuming Walters secures funding from a downtown urban renewal loan program, the restaurant will open in June.  

Is the rural lifestyle incompatible with veganism? Urban areas tend to be more progressive, and rural areas more conservative. And conservatives tend to be more resistant to veganism, according to several studies, among them a recent survey conducted by a professor at Brock University in Canada.

But Walters isn’t the only small town entrepreneur to note the surge of interest in plant-based dining, a trend driven by health-conscious meat-eaters. 

Die hard carnivores  flock to Paula Holmes’ Tin Thistle Cafe in coastal North Bend, where the energetic restaurateur serves up barbeque burgers, zucchini basil soup and marionberry pie. “There are several dudes who are just convinced there’s meat in the burger,” she says. “They like it so much they just think it has to be meat.”

twoPeasCaroline Francis atop her Two Peas food truck

Two Peas, a food truck that opened in March and serves farmers markets in Medford, Grants Pass and Ashland, dishes out falafel waffles, ayurvedic kitchari and other all-vegan plates.

“Southern Oregon has traditionally been a conservative area, but we’ve had an influx of different types of viewpoints,” owner Caroline Francis says. “We’re just trying to have an inclusionary menu.”

Many of the visitors to Cornbread Cafe are not vegans, says Walters, whose plant-based takes on Southern classics include Chik’n Fried Tempeh and vegan BBQ burgers. 

Demand may be on the upswing.  But the supply of vegan eateries lags behind. Some residents drive two hours from Roseburg for Holmes’ vegan food. There’s one all-vegan restaurant, Northwest Raw, in Ashland, Francis says, “then it’s like three hours until you hit another one.”

sipandstroll tinthistle

Once the Springfield location opens, Walters says, she’s considering expanding into Florence or other coastal towns. A vegan restaurant,she says, would be good for tourism and economic development.

“It’s the old adage: Build it and they will come,” says Walters, a vegan for 16 years. “It’s not always that simple, but that’s my story.”

A combination of health and  environmental concerns  led  Walters and her fellow vegan proprietors down a plant-based path.

Francis became a vegetarian at  age 10 after dissecting a chicken in science class. She completed the leap to veganism after learning about pollution and other environmental impacts stemming from the dairy industry. Working five years as a private chef, herbalist and ayurvedic wellness counselor helped hone her pitch for plant-based living.

Holmes worked 15 years at a barbecue joint. After cancer and chemotherapy treatments strained her kidneys, she considered changing her diet. She started eating at the Tin Thistle, a project of the local Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

veganmapA bridge of sorts between urban-led vegan movements and conservative, meat-focused rural areas, the church promotes “a well-balanced vegetarian diet” packed with legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

The food won her over, so much so that Holmes bought the restaurant.

“I feel so much better than I’ve ever felt in my life,” she says. “I want to make that available to everybody.”

cornbreadcafe1On the menu at the Cornbread Cafe

Opening a restaurant, any restaurant, is a notoriously risky enterprise. That risk mushrooms when the food targets a niche market. Plus, vegan restaurants can face higher overhead costs. They depend on fresh, seasonal vegetables and facilities for organic food preparation.

On the up side, vegan venues forgo the hefty price tag for grass-fed beef, which jumped this summer.

“Southern Oregon has traditionally been a conservative area, but we’ve had an influx of different types of viewpoints.” — Caroline Francis

The politics surrounding vegan dining can be another headache. The most tenacious customers, proprietors say, argue all day about animal rights — or lack thereof. But few, apparently, take issue with the taste.

“People will come up and openly state they hate you and your beliefs and your morals,” says Francis. Then she feeds them a vegan sausage.  “It ends up with them being surprised at what vegan food will taste like.” 


This article is part of a feature package on the vegan economy published in the May 2018 issue of Oregon Business. Read more vegan coverage here. 

This article has been edited to reflect the following corrections. This quote from Paula Holmes was incorrectly attributed to Walters: “There are several dudes who are just convinced there’s meat in the burger,” she says. “They like it so much they just think it has to be meat.” The first photo is the Cornbread Cafe, not the Tin Thistle. 

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