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Vegan restaurants find success downplaying 'v' word

MIAMI — When vegan bakery BabyCakes NYC recently opened a satellite shop in downtown Disney World, honesty wasn't a virtue. The shop's teal signs touting their dairy- and egg-free treats proved too much for the mostly middle-American, indulgent vacationers passing by.

"It was more of a repellent," said owner Erin McKenna. "People were just walking away."

Within a few days, the scary "v" word on the sign was made much smaller. And soon, unsuspecting walk-in customers were gushing over agave-sweetened vanilla cupcakes with lemon frosting and chocolate whoopie pies, unaware they were made sans eggs, milk and butter.

McKenna took the same approach when she opened her New York bakery in 2005 — letting the desserts, rather than the vegan message, speak for themselves.

"I didn't want people to automatically write us off and not come in," said McKenna, who also has a bakery in Los Angeles. "I was confident the stuff I was making was good enough to compete with other stuff on the market."

Celebrity vegans such as Lea Michele and Alicia Silverstone might help boost the lifestyle as a sexy, new food trend, but for many Americans veganism remains a turnoff, conjuring images of political zealots, hippie lentil loaves and hockey-puck pastries.

It's one reason vegan restaurants and bakeries are increasingly finding success by downplaying what they don't include on the menu.

But vegan food also has evolved, with vegan cupcakes taking top prize on Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" and restaurants like Candle 79, an upscale New York vegan eatery, serving Moroccan spiced chickpea cake with red pepper-coconut curry and date-apricot-ginger chutney.

It doesn't matter if the "meatloaf" or cake is vegan so long as it tastes amazing, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm. Marketing a delicious cake or promoting that your restaurant offers the most diverse flavors will grow a business, not hocking them as vegan.

When Ann Gentry opened Real Food Daily in Santa Monica, Calif., nearly 20 years ago, the menu advertised its offerings as organic vegetarian, even though everything they served actually was vegan. Vegetarians generally avoid meat, but will consume dairy and eggs.

"Nobody was using the word 'vegan'," said Gentry.

When she opened a second restaurant in West Hollywood five years later, the sign boldly showcased "organic vegan cuisine."

"I came out and said it, and really it didn't change anything," said Gentry, who is expanding to another location at Los Angeles International Airport and is refurbishing the West Hollywood storefront. Gentry is considering dropping the vegan tag because the restaurant name "says it all, and we have a reputation and we don't have to justify who we are."

"Most of who we serve are people that aren't necessarily vegan or vegetarian. They're looking for really good, healthy food in a great environment," she said.

Recently, Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, stumbled upon a Las Vegas bakery with decadent-looking sweets in glass cases. But she assumed few, if any of the options would be dairy-free.

"There was no sign that noted anything at all about the 'v' word," said Newkirk, who happily discovered many desserts at the Red Velvet Cafe were vegan and promptly devoured some tiramisu.

"I don't hold it against businesses who are trying not only to sell to the choir ... but are trying to sell to ultraconservatives that are hesitant ever to try Ethiopian food or a samosa or a vegan anything because that's not what they're used to," said NewKirk.

Ronald's Donuts in Las Vegas serves a mix of regular and vegan doughnuts but doesn't advertise the vegan options. The eatery, which opened nearly 20 years ago, has developed a cult-like following in the vegan community.

"We've developed a lot of vegan customers. They come from everywhere, out of country, out of town," said Janie Kang, whose husband owns the restaurant. Her vegan brother experimented with a doughnut recipe using soy shortening and swapping fresh yeast for eggs to help the doughnuts rise.

Balzer says diners are dietary explorers, "but only new versions of things we already know, not things we don't know."

That's why Christopher's Kitchen in South Florida reworked classics like barbecue flatbread with caramelized onions, thyme, avocado, red pepper, creamy nut "ricotta" and hunza raisins are popular. The Zen-decorated eatery is perfect for the ladies-who-lunch crowd in ritzy Palm Beach Gardens and is a favorite of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

And chef Christopher Slawson is about to open an upscale restaurant in South Beach. He says lux decor, perfect plating and exceptional service are just as important as what is in the food.

"When you're trying to influence people to consider a different lifestyle you have to really put elegance on it and approach it a different way," he said.

Gabi Bennett removes vegan cupcakes from an oven at the Baby Cakes bakery in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the shop's signs touting dairy- and egg-free treats were made much smaller. - AP