Vickie’s Veggie Table, at 101 Main Street in Biddeford, is among the vegetarian restaurants that opened in Maine in 2022. Photo courtesy of Vickie’s Veggie Table

We gained some, we lost some. We ate a lot of vegan ice cream. Maine’s vegan and vegetarian restaurant scene during 2022 was characterized by highs and lows – exciting new vegan restaurants opened (outside of Portland) and two decades-long vegetarian restaurant stalwarts closed (also outside Portland).

The arrival of the month of Veganuary, when hundreds of thousands from around the globe participate in the online vegan lifestyle challenge, offers an appropriate time to pause and reflect on the current state of Maine’s plant-forward dining scene.

Last year’s most significant news was the opening of three vegetarian restaurants: Curbside Comforts in Gorham, S+P Social in Newcastle and Vickie’s Veggie Table in Biddeford. However, we lost Chase’s Daily in Belfast (which opened in 2000), Taste of Eden in Norway (which opened in 2002 at its original location in Bethel), and the state’s first international vegan franchise, Copper Branch, which opened in Portland in late 2019, just months before the pandemic lockdown. Its closure reflects a changed commercial landscape in the city.

After Copper Branch went dark in the fall, local franchise owner Chris Hooper, of Cape Elizabeth, told me via email that the decision was prompted by the loss of downtown office workers during the pandemic.

The downtown Portland location of vegan chain Copper Branch, which opened in 2019, closed this year. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I live within walking distance of Copper Branch’s former home in Canal Plaza and can confirm the dramatic change. I ate lunch at Copper Branch twice during the March 2020 week leading to the lockdown orders. Both times the vegan restaurant was standing room-only and filled with office workers, which Hooper characterized as “a core target market.” Those workers now visit their offices once or twice a week, if at all. I never saw Copper Branch full again after the pandemic hit.

Just around the corner on Exchange Street, the vegetarian tea room Dobra Tea announced at the end of December that its Old Port store was closing, tea sales were moving online, and the owners hoped to find a more affordable retail space.

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Ellen Kanner, who owns Dobra Tea with Ray Marcotte, said the evaporation of downtown office workers played a major role in their decision to close the Old Port shop. Since the pandemic, the shop has survived serving “weekenders and tourists,” along with a core group of regular customers. But it is not enough business to cover the cost of an Old Port rent. According to Kanner, wages have doubled since the shop opened in 2010 (at its first location on Middle Street), and a cup of chai tea that cost $3.50 then now costs $10 with the addition of chaga, hemp flowers or Oatly milk.

Kanner said they are looking in Portland “and beyond” for a small shop where they can sell tea and host tastings.

At Vickie’s Veggie Table in Biddeford, owner Vickie Charity-McGuirk says the winter months are challenging but reports the cafe is gaining new customers, and with them comes increased optimism about the coming year.

“We are confident this spring and summer will boost our business to where it needs to be for us to succeed,” Charity-McGuirk told me. “We have replaced one of our summer juices with a new juice called Main Street Beet. We added an autumn beet salad and two hot sandwiches on focaccia bread, a breakfast panini with Impossible sausage, tofu egg, house-made mozzarella and red hot pepper jelly, and a Caprese panini with house-made mozzarella and pesto.”

The salad and both sandwiches are vegan. Vickie’s Veggie Table uses focaccia made by Little Spruce Bakery, also in Biddeford. The restaurant recently started an open mic night with a menu of vegan pizza and vegan cake paired with beer and wine. The next open mic night takes place on Feb. 26, and afterwards the event will take place the last Sunday of each month from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Over in Gorham at the take-out spot Curbside Comforts, the hours have expanded, but the staffing and lines of customers have shrunk from the busy summer season. However, it’s attracting new customers with a recent move to open at 7 a.m. selling coffee and grab-and-go breakfast items, such as bagels and cream cheese on weekdays and pancake sausage sticks on the weekends. Even with the arrival of cold weather, Curbside Comforts customers still order vegan ice cream, including a holiday nog flavor and a candy cane chaos milkshake.

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“We also continue to offer Two for $20 Thursdays and a weekly special,” owner Suzanne Dawson told me.

After filling holiday pre-orders, S+P Social in Newcastle closed for the season, and its owners, Shelby Faux and Payson Cunningham, hit the road to spend the winter visiting vegan restaurants and collecting menu ideas in New York City, Florida and Argentina. The vegan restaurant and wedding venue will reopen in the spring.

The past year also saw a number of vegetarian restaurants that opened in 2021 continue to gain their stride and customers, including Toast in Kittery, Boja’s Bungalow in Greenville and Gatherings 4 Main in Dexter.

Boja’s Bungalow is closed for the season, while Gatherings 4 Main continues to serve vegan and vegetarian lunches and host occasional special events. Toast is open Friday through Sunday, offering its gluten-free sourdough breads along with a menu of sweet and savory artisan toasts.

Outside Maine’s small cadre of vegetarian restaurants, vegan options have increased and improved at the majority of non-vegetarian restaurants in Maine, according to Jennifer Dubay of Portland, who organizes restaurant outings for vegans.

“I would say 80 percent of restaurants have good vegan options,” said Dubay. “Most have something, but 80 percent have really good options. It used to be about 50 percent, but in the past three to five years, it exploded.”

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Her observations are backed up by a recent data analysis that found the number of plant-based dishes on restaurant menus in the U.S. increased an astonishing 2,800 percent since 2018. The number crunching was done by research company Dataessential, which used an algorithm to track the appearance of plant-based dishes on menus. It noted that particularly popular menu items include Impossible burgers, oat milk, cauliflower wings and cauliflower tacos.

Dubay said the Maine restaurants that don’t offer high quality plant-based fare on their menus tend to be “the more touristy traps” and “the overly priced places that cater to really rich people.”

In the fall, Dubay created the Vegan Maine Meetup Group, which is hosting regular in-person get-togethers. Multiple Meetup groups with similar names operate in Portland, but the only vegan one currently doing in-person restaurant meetups is Dubay’s new group, which you can find at meetup.com.

On Sunday, Dubay’s Meetup group was planning to gather in the Old Port at Three Dollar Dewey’s, which offers an extensive vegan pub menu, and on Jan. 28, the group will descend on Nura in Monument Square, which started as an all-vegetarian restaurant serving the same office lunch crowds that no longer exist in Portland (and have been somewhat replaced by construction workers building condos and apartment buildings) and continues to offer its signature vegan falafel pitas, hummus bowls and shawarma fries along with animal-based meat. There is no cost (other than the price of dinner) to participate in either Meetup, but those wishing to attend must register online.

In addition to the disappearance of the Portland lunch crowd, another potential threat is looming over Maine’s vegetarian restaurants and food businesses: a bill in the state Legislature seeking to punish Whole Foods for following its ethical purchasing standards and dropping the sale of Maine lobster. The proposed legislation would deny tax breaks to any Maine company using third-party certifications to justify not selling Maine-made goods, as most vegan restaurants do when they rely on third-party certifications indicating whether a food is free of animal products.

Maine businesses attempting to sell vegan food that fail to rely on third-party certifications can find themselves facing the potential legal risk of allergic reactions and the need to apologize to customers, as a Gray scoop shop was forced to do in 2021 after it advertised vegan soft serve and then later discovered the product, which did not carry a third-party vegan certification, contained cow’s milk.

Political watchers say the anti-Whole Foods bill has as much chance of surviving the legislative session as, well, a lobster in a pot of boiling water. However, the concept of penalizing Maine businesses for ethical purchasing standards and the use of third-party certifications is dangerous to residents with allergies, a threat to the state’s growing health food industry, and targets Maine vegans and vegetarians by attempting to punish the businesses catering to them. It also sends a chilling message to Maine businesses that dare to inject ethics into American capitalism.

But as we’ve seen, 2022 offered far more than lobster suffering. This past year also saw Maine’s best-known vegetarian restaurant, the Green Elephant in Portland, celebrate 15 years in business; the number of ice cream parlors selling vegan flavors expanded; juice shops slinging smoothies seeped into all corners of the state; and vegan doughnut demand, as always, continued to be greater than supply (with She Doesn’t Like Guthries in Lewiston one of the latest spots making vegan doughnuts). With the bright skies of 2023 and a whole month of Veganuary ahead of us, all signs point to more vegan restaurant meals, more vegan doughnuts and more vegan ice cream as the new year unfolds.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at: [email protected].


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