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The Burrowing Owl was one of the first all-vegan eateries to hit the local scene.

We’re all aware that a once out-of-reach burger joint will soon open its first restaurant on the Front Range. The announcement of In-N-Out Burger’s arrival has frenzied the local masses. And while the city has no shortage of traditional eateries, there’s now a growing list of options for those who prefer that their food never walked around.  

The number of U.S. consumers who don’t eat animal products has risen significantly in recent years — about 6 percent identified as vegan in 2017 compared to 1 percent in 2014, according to the data analytics company GlobalData — but those who serve plant-based foods in Colorado Springs say it’s not just vegans driving the momentum. 

JL Fields, a vegan chef, consultant, cookbook author and the culinary director of the Colorado Springs Vegan Cooking Academy, said since she moved to the Springs in 2012, she’s seen tremendous growth among vegan eateries.

“If you talk to people who work in the food industry and have food brands in grocery stores,” Fields said, “the market for items that are called ‘plant-based’ is insane.”

According to a 2019 report by SPINS, a wellness-focused data technology company, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 11.3 percent in 2019 over 2018, compared to a 2 percent rise in food sales overall.

The report, which was commissioned by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association, found that plant-based sales were up 31.3 percent from April 2017 through April 2019, to a total of almost $4.5 billion.

The trend has been adopted by local restaurants, many of which are offering more vegan options — and some serve exclusively plant-based foods.

Fields points to two examples — The Burrowing Owl, a neighborhood bar with an all-vegan menu in Southwest Colorado Springs, and Santana’s Vegan Grill, a fast-food vegan drive-thru on Austin Bluffs Boulevard.

“Burrowing Owl … they opened five years ago. And not only are they still here, they’re thriving,” Fields said. “They survived COVID — which, just look at all the restaurants that have been suffering — but they also, just a year ago, suffered damage to their roof and were closed for a period of time. But they bounced back. The community won’t let them go away.”

Santana’s Vegan Grill, owned by Dusty Hernandez, first opened in a small location on Academy Boulevard in 2017, but was so successful, they upgraded to a larger space on Austin Bluffs in fall 2018.

“[Hernandez] founded Santana’s Vegan Grill which was at first in like, an old coffee kiosk,” Fields said. “And he did so well that he soon took over an old taco restaurant and they have been doing fantastic. So here are two things that people in other parts of Colorado would say, ‘That will never fly in Colorado Springs.’ … But they are here and they are strong. So I believe they shifted what’s happened here … because other restaurants took notice, like, ‘Wow! The vegans show up.’

“So it’s proof that vegan restaurants are in demand and that they can make it.”

THE BURROWING OWL

Tyler Schiedel, who owns The Burrowing Owl with his wife, Cody Rilo, said when they first launched their business in June 2015, they had no idea just how popular their all-vegan menu would be.

“It’s been really surprising and impressive,” Schiedel said. “We always joke that we wanted to be a dive bar that just happened to have this vegan food program, because we thought the seven vegans in town would be happy with anything. But it turns out there’s piles and piles of people who want to be either vegetarian or vegan. And so our food program immediately took off.”

Serving rich and decadent plant-based foods like mac-and-cheese, Sloppy Joe sandwiches and nachos — all of which, of course, substitute for traditional animal ingredients — their fare seems to have struck a chord with the community. Schiedel said revenue has grown by approximately 20 percent each year since opening.

And it’s not just vegans and vegetarians that come in for a drink or a bite to eat. 

“We definitely get carnivores in here, whether they like us for the bar component or whether they actually like the food as well,” Schiedel said. “And the age group is everything from 16-year-olds coming in for lunch or early dinner, all the way to elderly people in their 70s. So it’s really a wide range.”

Since The Burrowing Owl first opened, many local restaurants have added to their vegan options and new vegan restaurants, like Santana’s, has moved to online ordering.

But rather than viewing that growth as a threat, Schiedel said they’re more like allies in promoting veganism and plant-based food in Colorado Springs.

“We never look at it as competition because in our worldview, if all the businesses could be vegan that would be amazing,” Schiedel  said. “So … we invite vegan food trucks or even non-vegan food trucks that feature vegan stuff to come down here and sit in our parking lot all day. Because we just want to support the community.”

VEGAN RESTAURANT WEEK

In 2017, Fields founded the annual Colorado Springs Vegan Restaurant Week to support vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants on what would otherwise be a slow week.

“I chose Nov. 1 not only because it’s World Vegan Day, but because I know that November is when people stop eating out … so I chose November because I knew vegans would show up for the vegan foods and restaurants would see the demand,” Fields said.

She said seven or eight businesses participated in Vegan Restaurant Week in its inaugural year; in the second year, there were 15. Last year, 27 restaurants and food trucks signed on.

Fields said she hoped to feature 30 restaurants in 2020, but because of the pandemic, 16 restaurants initially signed up to participate, though she said she expected that number to grow to around 20 before the event kicked off.

“I think the event is really good for the restaurants and it’s certainly great for the vegans,” Fields said. “My hope is that it encourages people to get a little culinarily curious.”

The ever-busy Fields also runs the Colorado Springs Vegan Events webpage and, for the past six years, has coordinated three to four local vegan markets per year, which feature foods, wine, jewelry, clothing and candles.

“The first market I had five vendors and I believe the official count was 64 people. And we were high-fiving each other like crazy,” Fields said. “We couldn’t believe 64 people showed up for a vegan market.”

Fields began running the markets on a regular basis and they’ve since become so popular, organizers have had to shift to ever-larger venues to accommodate the demand. 

At one event, attendance grew to 150 people; at another, it increased to 500, and it has topped 1,000.

The CO Springs Holiday Vegan Market in November 2019 overtook most of Pikes Peak Library District’s Library 21c with more than 40 vegan vendors, five food trucks — four of which, Fields said, sold out of food — and 3,200 attendees.

ODYSSEY, THE BENCH AND THE JOINT 

Aaron Posey has worked in several positions, from line cook to marketing and business development manager for downtown eateries Odyssey Gastropub, The Bench and The Joint Food Truck, all of which are owned by Tyler and Jenny Sherman. 

Posey is currently the social media manager for the businesses and develops its vegan recipes. He’s also helping Fields coordinate this year’s restaurant week and said that whenever the businesses introduce a new vegan option, there’s typically a “huge demand for it.”

For instance, The Joint Food Truck recently did a pop-up event at The Burrowing Owl.

“And it was, sales-wise, the biggest day that we’ve ever had,” Posey said. “And ownership — they don’t really know what the demand is like. So to be able to convince them to let us do something like that and then to show them, on paper, the potential that’s out there, is nice. It’s nice to have that community support so we could go back and show them this is viable, this is something we need to do and to put thought into and to really take seriously from a business standpoint.”

Posey said that 2019 was the first time any of the three restaurants he works with participated in Colorado Springs Vegan Restaurant Week and they saw “measurable participation and sales increases” just by offering a few vegan items.

When The Joint Food Truck started consistently featuring vegan items — generally two of its 10 items are vegan, one permanent, the other rotating — Posey said “they’ve consistently been our top-selling items.”

Despite carrying just two vegan dishes, they sometimes account for 40 percent of overall sales.

Attracting vegans to the truck, Posey said, also helps generate other sales.

“Some people wouldn’t come to the truck if it wasn’t for [the vegan options,]” Posey said. “And when they do, they bring their friends who eat cheeseburgers. So I think a big part of being successful in the industry is having a wide appeal. If you want to be a place that’s a spot for the community, then you have to represent your community. So if you don’t have something gluten-free and you don’t have something vegan, you don’t have something for everyone. And that group of eight people that would have come in is going to go somewhere else.”

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.