Vegan, vegetarian food festival draw thousands to Ann Arbor

Monday, August 5, 2019 - 11:04pm

Washtenaw County Fairgrounds hosts Great Lakes Regional VegBash “The Summer of Veggie Love” Saturday.

Washtenaw County Fairgrounds hosts Great Lakes Regional VegBash “The Summer of Veggie Love” Saturday. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Claire Hao

Thousands of vegans and vegetarians traveled to the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Aug. 3, for the third annual Great Lakes Regional VegBash, a Midwestern vegan and vegetarian food festival. Attendees sampled and bought various food, crafts and health products from a wide range of vendors based across Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. 

Bill Lonskey, the event organizer and owner of the Quintessential Event Company, explained he started the event hoping to help attendees discover new foods. 

“We’re a unique event for vegans and vegetarians and those who are interested in exploring more plant-based options in their diet to come out and check out some wonderful restaurants,” Lonskey said. 

The theme of VegBash 2019 was “The Summer of Veggie Love” in honor of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, a 1969 music festival widely associated with the American counterculture movement of the 1960s. In line with the theme, attendees had the opportunity to speak briefly on camera about an area of activism they are passionate about as they walked in. 

The project, a new introduction this year, will be compiled into a series of videos later posted online, Lonskey said. 

“Woodstock and the whole hippie movement was a pinnacle time of activism in this country,” Lonskey said. “Vegans and vegetarians particularly are very much into their activism, so we saw a lot of correlation there.” 

This spirit for activism is at the core of Radical Plants, a vegan-specialty foods company owned by Melissa Heath. By introducing customers to superdip, the company’s oil-free, sugar-free dip, Heath said she hopes to inspire people to follow the company’s slogan and “eat plants for a change.”

“Through going vegan, my health improved,” Heath said. “I know if we eat a vegan or plant-based diet, it’s better for the planet and it’s just a more peaceful way of life … However you want to look at it, we’re making change.”

Similarly, Brian Lai, co-founder of The Only Bean, an organic and gluten-free pasta made solely from beans, said he started the company to create a carbohydrate substitute both healthier and better for the environment. 

“We focus on being healthy, delicious and sustainable,” Lai said. “We started the company because we eat a lot of rice and noodles, and we noticed it wasn’t very healthy for our diet, so we wanted to find an alternative.”

Ebony Thomas, owner of Urban Soul Grille, said she originally started out cooking non-vegetarian soul food, but has fully transitioned to vegan-only soul food to fill what she saw as an unmet need. 

“There’s a lot of regular soul food places, not a lot vegan soul food,” Thomas said. “And a lot of people want vegan food that is still that flavor.”

To Dearborn resident Morgan Barr, VegBash is worth the drive because of the variety of products available in one place.

“It’s a good way to easily get access to vegan food and vendors without having to look into them and find out whether or not they’re vegan,” Barr said.

Hazel Park resident Julia Schoch also said she appreciated the quantity of options at the event. In anticipation of the festival, Schoch and her friends drove to the area the night before, staying on campsites available at VegBash to be able to walk through the event early on Saturday. 

“I’m vegan because I don’t want to hurt animals,” Schoch said. “So finding new vegan food is always awesome.”

Barn Sanctuary, a non-profit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating abused and neglected farm animals, manned the beer tent. Like Schoch, the organization’s executive director Kelly Holt connected veganism to animal wellbeing.

“(Our animals) serve to be examples of why we strive to lead society towards a vegan lifestyle,” Holt said. “So events like VegBash are a perfect opportunity to talk about the work that we do.”

Sim Sethi, owner of Earthen Jar, a vegetarian and vegan Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor, expressed similar sentiments to Holt, explaining he has attended all three VegBash events because he finds them a great advertising tool.

“People are coming from Ohio, Indiana, all around Michigan, so it’s good to have a platform where people can get a better idea of what we have available,” Sethi said. “It’s always crowded, and you leave with all your food gone, which is what you want at all these events.”

In particular, Lai noted VegBash helps The Only Bean reach its target market of health-conscious individuals. Thomas mentioned VegBash attendees in previous years have even come to visit Urban Soul Grille at its base location in Cleveland.

Heath said she will attend every VegBash for the opportunity to bring her business to Ann Arbor, which she called a “vegan mecca.”

“Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw-county area is such a receptive area to new foods and new ideas and veganism,” Heath said. “We’re here to just help support what you guys already do.”