Early on a Tuesday in May, the produce aisle at Central Market Westgate was unusually animated, with dozens of customers gathering around a shiny new display case among fresh juices and rows of exotic mushrooms. Chefs toss out pepperoni pizza wedges and slices of chicken fajita and watch how skeptical chewing turns into pure bliss. Because in this new butcher counter, nothing is as it seems at first glance. From buffalo wings to bacon strips, all of the 30+ items are made with plant-based ingredients like seitan, high-spiced tofu, and vegan pickles.
For food service manager Phil Myers, this endeavor has been an obsession for nearly three years, as he and his battalion of chefs at Central Market tirelessly develop the new “Meatless Butcher” program. Having seen the vegan market rise from a niche entourage to $7.4 billion in 2021, Myers realized his quest was not in vain. But he also realized that convincing carnivorous Texans of their merits required products that flawlessly emulated favorites, like teriyaki-marinated chicken breast and Greek-style kabobs.
To accomplish this feat, Myers traveled the world, visiting category-defining gold standards such as Hiltl in Zurich, Switzerland, the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant. He shipped a selection of The Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis and The Very Good Butchers in Vancouver. Finally, the Central Market team dissected their favorites, looking for trade secrets they could use when grocers got into the genre.
Launched on April 22nd, the counter proved to be an immediate success. Part of this can be attributed to the variety of high-quality products, such as the lean brisket that mirrors its beef counterpart with smoked bark (courtesy of smoked sea salt, walnuts and smoked paprika) and most importantly, the grainy texture achieved with the addition of jackfruit. . There are also chefs running the place, ready to provide samples and cooking tips on the perfect way to prepare each dish. Because for Myers and his team, they understand that there can be an intimidation factor for this class. Beginners with plant origins may be shy simply out of self-doubt or unfamiliarity.
“Most of these things aren’t meant for vegetarians or vegans,” Myers says. “It’s for the other 94 percent who just want to eat something else. Maybe you consume a little meat. Maybe they care about the planet and they’re cut back. Or they just want to have a meatless Monday.”
To help achieve this kind of widespread acceptance, Central Market has created easy-to-handle “gate items,” such as the ready-to-eat spicy seitan chorizo for breakfast tacos, or the aforementioned vegan pepperoni, seasoned with garlic, fennel seeds, and ground red pepper. So far, this approach has paid off, with a reception that made the HEB branch stand up and take notice. Now, other locations are preparing for their vegan butcher counters — possibly as early as 2023. If anything, experience has shown that meat has made its match.