Every Sunday, a pop-up market materializes at 5300 Bakman Avenue in North Hollywood from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., where 50 food vendors sell tacos, shawarma, sushi, and even cajun seafood. And all of it is vegan.
Since its start in 2015, Vegan Exchange has become the spot to eat dishes made by the LA cooks redefining plant-based food. In just the last few years, market founder Jessica Cruz has seen the vendors use meat and seafood substitutes to mimic their favorite non-vegan foods in ways they weren’t able to before these alternatives arrived on the scene in 2016. She’s loving it.
“It's so special and so unique,” Cruz says. “I think that helps to shift the narrative and break the stereotype of what veganism is.”
The idea for the market came to Cruz after she had stopped eating meat products for about five years. She dreamed up the idea for the market, launched a grassroots effort to put on the event, and opened this vegan street fair in North Hollywood on March 1, 2015.
On the big day, 44 vendors were set up on two blocks. Cruz thought it would be nice if they got around 1000 people so that they could do this annually. Ten thousand people showed up that day. “I was mind-blown,” says Cruz. “Right then and there, I knew I had something.“
Today, the weekly market has grown beyond a core group of vegans to become a place that appeals to meat-eaters too. Cruz credits the vendors for reflecting LA’s diverse ethnic makeup using meat and seafood substitutes to veganize different dishes. A majority of the vendors are people of color and at a recent market they offered Thai gelato, Japanese sushi, and Mexican street dogs.
Attracting non-vegans was always her goal from the beginning. According to Cruz’s informal polling, 70% of the people who attend her events are not vegan.
“I'm not trying to make vegans more vegan,” says Cruz. “I want the vegan-curious people out there to explore and enjoy vegan things without the intimidation factor or feeling like there's anything wrong with them because they're not vegan.”
Meet the vendors
Jessie Gil cooks many of the dishes he enjoyed before becoming vegan, like cajun shrimp boils, poke bowls, and Jack in the Box-style tacos, as owner of the pop-up vegan food business El Compa Vegano.
Gil grew up hearing his family say, “tienes comer carne,” or “you have to eat meat,” says Gill. “Our parents always taught us to get protein. There’s protein in plants as well. You can get as much protein in plants minus animal cholesterol.”
He would like to change people’s perspectives when they eat his food. “I love targeting non-vegans,” says Gil. “When I get compliments from them … that's when it makes me feel good as a chef.”
Shardé Whitt started her business Voodoo Vegan at Vegan Exchange in June 2019. She serves up dishes like jambalaya, shrimp po boys, and vegan mac and cheese all inspired from family recipes.
A few years ago her gooey gouda mac and cheese wouldn’t have been possible because back then, “cheese was sad,” says Whitt. “It was almost like cardboard.” For her vegan shrimp dishes she uses a shrimp substitute made from the East Asian root konjac. She prefers this over soy versions because of its realistic texture.
Whitt calls Vegan Exchange “a great cultural melting pot, which really helps to curate an unimaginable vegan market.”