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When vegan chef Adam Sobel’s food truck, The Cinnamon Snail, was not able to renew its permit, it was time to regroup. The truck, which had won numerous awards (both vegan-friendly and not), transformed into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in New York’s The Pennsy food hall and continues operating food trucks to serve the community at events. Sobel’s concept has done so well that he plans to open a new Cinnamon Snail location in New York in the first quarter of 2017.
He weighs in on how vegan food’s alternative proteins can drive traffic from meat eaters and vegans alike.
Why did you want The Cinnamon Snail to be a vegan concept?
Personally, I am vegan for ethical reasons. I really believe that you can enjoy a healthy and delicious lifestyle without having to cause suffering for other living creatures, and I really wanted to encourage others to gravitate toward living a more compassionate lifestyle.
How does The Cinnamon Snail appeal to meat eaters?
Part of it is making food that is not bizarre to a meat eater. It’s not some strange, fake dish. It’s legitimate food that is very flavorful and creative. Sometimes I get very spicy with the food because people expect vegan food to have no [substance]. I like to make it more flavorful and exciting than non-veg food.
The other side of it is I’m not shoving it down people’s throats that it’s vegan food. It’s really yummy food that just happens to be vegan, and I think that if it’s really great food, people will make the connections and understandings about why we’ve chosen to make it vegan without us having to play it on the loudspeaker.
What kinds of dishes have wider appeal?
Among the things that play well to the veg and non-veg audiences is the Korean Seitan Barbecue we do, and we are also very popular for our doughnuts, which have won all kinds of awards outside of the veg-specific audience.
There are a lot of things on our menu that are very popular with non-veg eaters, like the Beast Mode Burger that has jalapeño mac and cheese on it and smoked chile coconut bacon, arugula, and chipotle mayo on a toasted pretzel bun. You definitely don’t have to be vegetarian to see why that would be yummy.
What’s the competitive field like for vegan concepts?
I feel like we’re all on the same side of trying to help the mainstream culture evolve toward a more compassionate mentality concerning food. I really view how we fit into the vegan restaurant landscape to be very cooperative. I want to support other people’s vegan businesses, and there are many billions of people on this planet. Veg or non-veg, people need to eat, and there are enough hungry people that all businesses can stay profitable.
Of course, we’re trying to serve as many people as we can, both because we are trying to have an impact culturally and because we’re trying to survive as a business. That’s an extra incentive for us to be constantly improving and making better food and to make ourselves more efficient as a business.
How has the transition from food truck to brick and mortar changed your concept?
It hasn’t changed much. The one thing that has changed is that with a food truck, we visited different neighborhoods every day. The communities we visited knew that we visited on a Wednesday, for example, so they knew there was a slamming vegan option that day in their neighborhood. Because of that, we were able to serve pretty much the same menu Monday through Friday, and it would still be just as exciting and interesting every day because it was a completely different audience every day. Being stuck in one place every day makes me more inclined to do different fun stuff with our menu to keep it engaging and exciting for our customers.
Other than that, now it’s very easy for people to find us, and it wasn’t when we were a food truck, especially in New York City. Food trucks are constantly being shut down and moved and having parking problems. [Brick and mortar] is very dependable. People know seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., they can get our food at this exact location.
With the new location, it’s the same business, but one thing I’m really excited to do differently at this new location that I already do with the trucks is that I really like having menu items that are exclusive to each location. We’re putting in completely different equipment to execute our food offerings at this new location that will allow us to have a dramatically different menu. It will be the same concept, but there will probably be five or six menu items that are exclusive to that location that are super exciting.