November 17, 2014
Until fairly recently, Charlotte was a desolate landscape for anyone with a vegan diet. It was rare to come across someone who could even identify veganism as a plant-based diet, much less to find a restaurant with clearly stated vegan options. But then again, it was only fairly recently that Charlotte truly turned a corner and became a hub for all things progressive. With the rise in popularity of colleges like UNCC and CPCC, Charlotte, which for a long time has been dubbed by many as “the next Atlanta,” has seen rapid growth in the way of the young and the educated. In 2008, North Carolina turned Blue in the presidential election for the first time in decades, and Mecklenburg County had a lot to do with it. This year’s annual Charlotte Pride festival had a record-breaking 100,000 in attendance. That’s eight percent of the city’s population.
It has become increasingly easy (and downright rewarding) to be a vegan living in Charlotte. You no longer have to make the trip to Rosetta’s Kitchen in Asheville, under the guise of seeing a band at The Orange Peel that you may or may not be less excited about, to eat greasy American vegan food. Health food stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare have made a strong presence in town. More big-chain restaurants and independent joints like The Diamond are offering scrumptious non-meat, non-dairy options. ZiZi’s in the University area became the first all-vegan restaurant, albeit take-out only, serving mostly mock meats. And a couple years ago, Charlie Foesch and Roy Parkhurst opened Bean Vegan Cuisine on Independence Blvd. between Eastway and Briar Creek. It has quickly become a local favorite, as well as a mecca for vegans (and non-vegans) traveling from far and wide to visit a restaurant that has become another symbol of Charlotte’s rapidly changing scenery.
When you visit Bean, leave your preconceptions about veganism at the door. Yes, everything on the menu is plant-based, but Foesch and Parkhurst don’t want you to eat a plateful of kale or garbanzo beans and call it a night. They want to feed you southern comfort staples like the Reuben Sandwich, with a house-made lunch loaf sautéed with Dayia Mozzarella and topped with sauerkraut and house-made thousand island dressing. Or the Jalapeno Cheddar Burger served with Vegenaise, tomato and lettuce. It’s the kind of menu that fills you up, and could even make you have to cancel your plans for the rest of the day because of the food coma state in which it leaves you—but then of course beckons your return the next time it’s time to decide where to eat.
On the 1st of November, Bean opened an all-vegan grocery located adjacent to the restaurant. This is yet another vegan milestone for Charlotte. It is a one-stop shop for anything vegan, from produce, almond milk, pasta and mayonnaise, to delicious snacks like Earth Balance cheddar crackers, vegan marshmallows and more. I recently had an opportunity to talk to Bean’s executive chef Charlie Foesch about the grocery store, the restaurant and Charlotte’s growth as a compassionate city.
CLTure: When did Bean open? Was there an “a-ha” moment that made you come to the decision to open a vegan restaurant?
Charlie: We opened in June of 2012, so it’s been two and a half years. I became vegan seven or eight years ago, when the eating landscape for vegans was very challenging. You could get a veggie burger someplace, but the bread might not be vegan. You certainly couldn’t get any vegan cheese. You couldn’t get any vegan condiments except for ketchup and mustard. I started cooking a lot for myself. I kept track of what worked, tweaked what didn’t work, was really good about taking notes & making recipes, and lo and behold, I had this cookbook of recipes. And Roy asked me one day, “What do you want to do with your life?” I said, “I think I want to open a restaurant and cook vegan food.” And he said, “Let’s open a vegan restaurant.” And we did. We started looking for a place in November [of 2011]. We kept driving by this [Independence Blvd.] location, thinking it would be perfect, but there was something else here. But on December 30th we saw a For Lease sign on the window. It took six months to finally get the restaurant up and running.
CLTure: What are your most popular dishes?
Charlie: Anything fried. There’s this notion that vegan food has to be ultra-healthy or raw, and if it’s not, it’s not vegan, or “official.” And people really love getting southern comfort food, fried food, something with a sauce. And it is just good food.
CLTure: Do meat-eaters enjoy coming in to eat at Bean?
Charlie: They do. When we opened Bean we had an idea of what we thought the typical vegan looked like. And so we had an idea of what our customer base would look like. But it is nothing like what we thought. It’s men, women, all ages, all races; it’s as diverse as the population is. There are people who are vegan for their health, because they’re compassionate towards animals, because of religious beliefs… it’s all over the place, and it’s really cool. Right after we opened, a man brought his wife in and they’d been married for 30 years, and it was the first time he’d been able to take her to a restaurant where she could order anything off of the menu. She had been vegan the whole time they had been married.
A lot of times, people come with someone who is vegan or vegetarian, and they feel like they’re making a sacrifice. But then they enjoy the food too. Like, “Wow, the jalapeno cheddar burger is good!” And that’s no joke!
CLTure: Are there any gratifying Bean moments?
Charlie: All the time. Daily, there are people who are so grateful to have a place where they can eat a variety of food, and aren’t limited to the one “vegan option.” And they can mix it up, order the special and have a favorite. They can do whatever they want to do. And that’s really gratifying. And now with the store, too—we heard from our customers, “I’d be more vegan if it was easier to shop and I knew where to get all this stuff.”
CLTure: Bean’s vegan market, in its current stage, reminds me of Food Fight! Grocery in Portland, Oregon. I’d read that the owner opened it partly because he wanted to change the misconceptions about what vegans eat. And so at the beginning it was filled with a lot of frozen food, fast food, meat replacements, snacks, etc. It has grown since then, but I thought it was an interesting idea. And I was really excited to hear about the opening of the store here, because that’s what I’ve been looking for in Charlotte.
Charlie: Isn’t it crazy that in Charlotte–BBQ and pimento cheese land–here we are serving vegan BBQ and vegan pimento cheese and people love it?
CLTure: Was it your intention from the start to open a vegan grocery next to the restaurant? How did the idea come about?
Charlie: The grocery store evolved from talking to customers who were saying things like “If there were a store [in Charlotte] where I could get jackfruit or Harmony Valley–a place where I could get everything I wanted, that would be awesome.” So it was really filling a void. There wasn’t a full-scale grocery store where you could get Vegenaise, cheese, lunch meat, chips, dips, pasta, tomato sauce, you name it.
CLTure: What are some of your favorite items in the new store?
Charlie: Oh, shoot. [Laughs] Chao Cheese. All of the Earth Balance products. Earth Balance is hitting a home run with their mac and cheese. It’s crazy good. It’s good convenience food. I mean, we want to be able to open a box, cook a pot of something and eat it. They’re great for that. Their sour cream & onion chips are fantastically good. The Fishless Filets from Gardein are great. The Louisville Vegan Jerky is amazing.
CLTure: Are you involved in any community outreach outside of the restaurant, vegan-related or otherwise?
Charlie: We’ve devoted a lot of time, energy and money into keeping the restaurant going. Now, with the addition of the grocery store, we’re going to be able to do more community events. We’ve done some animal support events and we had the first vegan booth at Charlotte Pride, and we’ll probably do that again next year. We like supporting things like VegFest, but we’re also going to branch out and do other festivals too, just to have a vegan presence there; we heard from vegans at Pride saying that they didn’t expect to have a vegan food option. We were there selling BBQ, and there were people buying BBQ sandwiches, not even knowing they are vegan, and loved them.
CLTure: How do you feel about how Charlotte has been progressing as a city that is compassionate towards animals?
Charlie: Wow—Charlotte is—there is a vegan revolution going on right now. The Humane League established an office here. They do outreach to all the colleges. There are more vegan-friendly stores than I could even list. Vegan restaurants, vegan take out, vegan delivery service. It seems like the perception is changing.
CLTure: What’s next for Bean?
Charlie: What IS next for Bean? …Well, we are opening the grocery store. Once we get that established, we’re probably going to open another location. We’re looking at having a presence in Asheville. A lot of people travel here from Asheville for our food. In fact, a lot of people from all over—Durham, Raleigh, Boston, California—are saying if we open a Bean there, it would be a hit. So then we thought, maybe we can’t open in all of those places, but maybe we should do a food truck!
3001 E Independence Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28205