Edmonton’s vegan scene thrives in the middle of cattle country

By Marysia Wojcik January 8, 2019

If you told Natanya Pearcey when she graduated engineering school that her family would one day make vegan cheese from scratch in a commercial kitchen they built themselves, she wouldn’t have believed you.

But when the previous owners of For the Love of Cheese Vegan Cheezery were looking to train a new cheesemaker, Pearcey knew her mom Shirley Lukawitski, a longtime vegan, would love the challenge. And when they went to sell the business, Pearcey, her husband James, and Lukawitski decided to make the leap and buy it.

“It’s a movement, and I could even feel that a year ago when we started doing this business. I felt like there’s a wave coming,” Pearcey says of the growing interest in veganism. She’s not the only one: other local businesses, including Natural Kitchen Delights and Naked Hippie Soap Co, have recently found success in Edmonton’s vegan scene.

Pearcey’s family now sells their primarily nut-based gluten-free cheeses at markets throughout the city, Blush Lane, Amaranth Foods, Sweet Pea Cafe & Playhouse, Glow Juicery, and Remedy. The owner of Remedy, Sohail “Zee” Zaidi, even gave them the idea to experiment with new flavours and now serves their cream cheese and paneer on his menu.

How does Pearcey know when a recipe is perfect? She tests it on her young daughters, Ava and Grace. “They’re our CEOs,” she jokes. “They have a few of the cheeses that they love, and those are our top sellers.”

Natanya and James Pearcey tackled the challenge to bring scratch vegan cheese to Edmonton (Chris Oncuil/EEDC)

Favourites include baked feddah and buffalo motzahrella, which actually melts when heated, a notorious challenge for non-dairy cheesemakers. Besides their cheeses, they also make chocolate cashew mylk and a raw goji chocolate bar.

Chocolate is also the specialty of Orrey Rilling of Natural Kitchen Delights, who strives to make chocolate accessible for all.

He and two friends started making chocolate in 2013 for Mother’s Market. “We were just tired of the junk in chocolate,” he says. After connecting with a few retailers, including Blush Lane, Amaranth, and Earth’s General Store, they realized their side project could become much more than they initially thought.

Now a solo full-time chocolatier, Rilling sells his chocolates for $5 at the Strathcona Farmer’s Market year-round and in St. Albert in the summer. His retail sales have expanded to stores throughout Alberta, including in Calgary, Red Deer, and High River.

Unlike many vegan chocolates, Rilling’s is raw, untempered, and contains no preservatives. It’s even made on equipment that doesn’t process any milk products, which is normally difficult to guarantee. “I think that people like to have the reassurance that there’s just no dairy,” he says.

The Original Nude is a dark, creamy bar made with quality ingredients including maple syrup from Quebec and raw vanilla bean powder. This recipe is the foundation for his flavoured bars, which include such inventive combinations as blueberry-lavender and coffee-coconut.

All but the Caramel Cashew (which contains local raw honey) are completely vegan. Whenever possible, Rilling flavours his chocolates with Canadian products. “I wanna push as much of my money in Canada as possible,” he explains.

Orrey Rilling is dedicated to creating untempered, preservative-free vegan chocolate (Source: Natural Kitchen Delights)

When it comes to paying attention to ingredient lists, most vegans hold their skincare to the same standards as their food: just ask Jackie Fitzner who founded Naked Hippie Soap Co. She avoids using parabens, petroleum, palm oil, sulfites, and animal products in her line. When she tells people that most conventional soaps contain animal fats, “they think it’s so gross.”

Fitzner became interested in soapmaking when her son developed skin issues and she couldn’t find cost-effective products that were vegan, cruelty-free, and suited her family’s needs. This gave her the idea to try making her own right in her kitchen.

“It is a business, but I don’t think there’s any need or necessity to absolutely gouge people,” she says. Made with tea tree and charcoal, the original soap she perfected for her family is now a best-seller ($7). Customers also love her lotion ($12), which can be used on the face, body, and even tattoos.

Her husband, wanting his kitchen back, built her a workspace in a spare bedroom, and now she sells her soaps, lotions, balms, and candles throughout North America, as well as at local markets. She’s also part of the Painted Door, a not-for-profit artists’ group with a storefront in Beaumont.

“It’s becoming more mainstream,” she says of the growing popularity of veganism. “Everyone seems to know somebody who’s vegan or vegetarian, and people are understanding the reasons for doing it more now than they used to.”

Pearcey agrees, though she can’t pin down one specific reason people are going vegan. But whether the impetus is health, ethics, or sustainability, she says, “everyone is talking about how Edmonton has a good vegan scene.”

Vegan skincare is just as important as dining to Jackie Fitzner (Chris Oncuil/EEDC)

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