Green Town: Do Veggies the Boston Way

Veggie dining is getting a 21st century reboot and Boston is leading the way.

Something remarkable is happening in Boston with vegetables. Beyond the wider global trend for plant-based diets—especially among millennials—Boston is riding a wave of innovation and entrepreneurial energy towards a tasty green future.

A quick glance at the city’s streets confirms that the number of vegetarian and vegan dining choices has increased noticeably over the past decade.

From locally owned Cocobeet in City Hall Plaza to Cambridge buzz spots Veggie Galaxy, a classic old-school 1950s diner, re-imagined without meat and Life Alive, which started in Lowell on a mission to “feed the vitality of the world one meal at a time,”—along with out-of-town vegan arrival by CHLOE, now in Seaport and the Fenway—it’s clear that the green-leaners and the lean-greeners have migrated from the margins to the mainstream. There’s even a vegetable garden on the roof of Fenway Park—Fenway Farms—established to promote the health benefits of fresh local veggies to the hotdog-loving Red Sox Nation.

Friendly and Relaxed

“The vegetarian scene has grown a lot in the past five years,” said Ellen Fitzgerald, co-founder of Mother Juice, which began as a crowd-funded juice truck in 2012, and now has brick-and-mortar locations in Kendall Square, Boston Public Market and Newbury Street. The menu features bowls, toasts and salads—everything is organic, plant-based, gluten-free and dairy-free. “We try to make it a friendly place for people to come who might otherwise be turned off by vegetarian food.”

Ellen Fitzgerald (left) and Laura Baldini

Together with business partner Laura Baldini, Fitzgerald has taken a relaxed, all-embracing approach to the business, best captured by their motto—”Peace, Love and Veggies”—and rooted in a conjoined understanding that local sourcing is a very good idea but preaching the vegetarian lifestyle is counterproductive.

“My husband is definitely not a vegetarian,” Fitzgerald said. “He would not like eating a salad without meat. So I test out all of our dishes on him and if he’ll eat it, I’m like: ‘OK, all the guys in suits will eat this.’ We work with lots of local farms. That’s huge for us and definitely drives all of our specials.”

For Baldini, the argument for eating more veggies is a cold-pressed no-brainer: “You’ll live longer, your skin will glow, you’ll feel better, you can fix a lot of stuff. Just don’t eat processed things. It’s so simple.”

Tasty Technology

At Clover Food Lab, another plant-based food business that began with a humble food truck, the very concept of fast food is heading into a whole new dimension.

Fueled by the vision and detail-oriented passion of founder Ayr Muir, an MIT grad and staunch defender of the environment, Clover could well bring about a sea change in the way all food is consumed in the developed world, never mind the vicinity of Boston.

At all of the company’s 12 brick and mortar locations, the sense of experiencing food ahead of the curve is palpable. Unobtrusive high tech and tactile low tech are seamlessly interwoven: kids’ drawings are taped to the wall next to ‘intelligent’ digital screens streaming videos, menu updates and wait-time information.

Sorting greens

“Technology plays an extremely important role at Clover,” Muir said. “It’s not about being flashy. It’s about allowing us to do things that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The displays we have are completely live. If the status of an item changes, it changes immediately on the menu; if the wait time changes, it changes on the menu.”

Fast and Fresh

The amazing thing about Clover is that 90 percent of its customers are not vegetarian. In fact, Muir consciously avoids promoting his meat-free vision for fast food in terms of an ingrained culture that’s perhaps best summed up by Homer Simpson’s chucklesome declaration: “I’d be a vegetarian if bacon grew on trees.” Muir is well aware of long-held preconceptions.

“Our whole reason to be is that we’re trying to help people fall in love with vegetables who are otherwise carnivorous,” he said. Consequently, Muir and his team have hand-blended a fistful of cutting-edge business practices—including transparency, data analysis, public food development forums—all in the name of fresh, fast, great-tasting food.

Chickpea fritter sandwich

“We’re blazing new ground, and there’s a lot of things that we’re rewriting and inventing. The only way we’ve been able to do that is by listening to our customers and being very adaptable. We evolve very quickly. Even on the menu, you look at an item like the chickpea fritter sandwich: it’s version number 34. It’s important that we like the food we make, but if customers don’t love it, it shouldn’t be on the menu.”

At the moment, Clover has a loyal and dedicated Boston following, but Muir’s ambitions run deeper and greener. “I think we’re at a special moment right now. For any individual in a developed country, what you chose to eat for each meal is probably the most impactful choice you make all day about the environment.”

Could Clover one day be bigger than McDonalds? “I would love it if that were the case. I’m not interested in something that’s a small chain, just in one region. That said, I’m also very humble—there’s nothing we can assume.”

Whatever the veggie future holds, the road from Beantown to Green Town is now beginning to look a lot like destiny.