On the inside, Vida’s looks like any other traditional deli shop. There are meats and cheeses neatly wrapped in the front case and a menu with familiar lunch items: a ham and Swiss sandwich, a meatball sub and even mac and cheese. But, you won’t find a single meat or dairy product in the deli—and that’s because every item is plant-based. Having opened shop in October 2020, Vida’s Plant-Based Butcher is Columbus’ first all-vegan butcher and is making an impression on vegans and meat-eaters alike.
Carl Underwood, the owner of Vida’s, has eaten a plant-based diet for over 17 years now—a diet known for the health benefits associated with reduced meat and dairy consumption. The lifestyle runs in the family; his father was a vegetarian for 10 years, so Underwood grew up eating plant-based meals.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life and plant-based seemed to always be the constant,” he said.
Underwood is a part of the fast-growing community of vegans and vegetarians in the United States. In fact, there are between 2% and 6% Americans who identify as vegetarians today; only 1% of self-identifying vegetarians solely eat a plant-based diet. Studies show that the number of vegetarians has substantially increased from 2013 to 2018.
While plant-based and vegan restaurants have existed in Columbus for a while, Underwood noticed the demand for more vegan-friendly options. Vida’s began as Truly Vida, a plant-based protein distribution company started in 2018 that partnered with other restaurants in the area, like the popular hot dog restaurant Dirty Franks. As community support and demand grew, Truly Vida evolved into the traditional yet innovative and quaint corner shop that is Vida’s today.
Regionally, the Midwest is known for its comfort food, barbecues and fast food (trailing only the South in most fast-food restaurants per capita) so it’s no surprise that the Midwest has been slower to hop on the plant-based health trends. However, coastal states (California, Vermont, Oregon and Nevada) are among the most consistent vegan states and have the fastest growing number of plant-based eaters.
“The West Coast has always been ahead of us when it comes to that active, healthy lifestyle. With my experience from eating at these different places [across the states], it really gave me the inspiration [for the shop], down to the design and look of Vida’s,” he said.
Underwood acknowledged that things are “slowly changing” in the Midwest, and restaurants like Vida’s are a part of a growing number that at least offer meatless alternatives. Even fast-food restaurants have added veggie options into their menus, including Burger King’s Impossible Burger and White Castle’s Impossible Sliders—although, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy.
According to Underwood, people from all ages and backgrounds walk through Vida’s doors, vegan and non-vegan alike.
“We have a lot of kids that have found us online and encouraged their parents to bring them here. Our demographics go up as high as 80 [years old],” he said. “[Vida’s offers items] not just to vegans or vegetarians, but [to] the whole spectrum of people that can’t eat dairy and don’t practice vegetarian or veganism.”
While there are pre-existing resources to create vegan meats and cheeses, it is not a simple process; making plant-based alternatives with an appealing taste and texture requires dedication and a great deal of trial and error.
“Everything that we make takes time and a lot of research. For instance, our cheese recipe—I started that recipe over two years ago and I’m just now slowly, but surely refining it to get the most cheese-like texture, smell and taste that we can work with while also being conscientious about allergens,” Underwood said.
A similar process is done for Vida’s plant-based hot dog.
“I looked at how a [regular] hot dog was made. It’s smoked, it’s sugar-washed and salt-washed. From learning the process of how an actual meat product is made, we figured out how to make a plant-based version of it,” he said.
During the interview, I got the chance to tour the kitchen workspace below the deli. Underwood pulled out a handful of containers filled with cheeses for me to try; although Vida’s cheeses are made from a cashew base, I was impressed with how closely the tastes and textures resembled real cheese.
“Texture, of course, is what people are used to and want. When you eat a vegan product, you don’t want it to taste like tofu when you’re expecting it to taste like a turkey alternative,” Underwood said. “Everything’s a journey. Sometimes it just looks like a lump—then we turn it into something that’s full of flavor and resembles the product we’re trying to mimic.”
Underwood created Vida’s to be a place for all people to come and discover a new way of eating. He plans to expand Vida’s into a chain of deli shops in “any area that has a need for it.”