People used to think vegan diets were just a trend. Fast forward a few decades and we understand that people’s choices and values offer more weight than a fad or label. But a troubling uptick in plant-based restaurants in Toronto and elsewhere closing is cause for concern. Are vegan restaurants more susceptible to closure? Or are plant-based restaurants just living under a constant microscope?

To peel back the layers of this onion we spoke with Jennifer Coburn, owner of plant-forward Gia Restaurant and the soon-to-open Stefano’s Sandwiches about her thoughts and to learn more about what it takes to actually run a restaurant.

The politics and economics of plant-based restaurants

Libby Roach- There is no question that Toronto, like other large markets, has an appetite for all things plant-based. But is the market saturated? There seem to be quite a few plant-based closures in Toronto lately.

Jennifer Coburn- The facts are black and white. 62% of restaurants (Restaurants Canada) are losing money or are just breaking even. I think it’s a combination of bad business, the industry itself, and restaurants as a lower-profit margin business in and of itself. It’s 5-10% profit in a restaurant typically. Veganism is a niche market, making it harder to sell to everyone. The more niche you go, the fewer people that it will attract.

jennifer coburn- stefano's sandwiches
Jennifer Coburn- Owner, Gia Restaurant + Stefano’s Sandwiches

“Our most recent data shows 62% of restaurants in Canada are operating at a loss or barely breaking even, compared to 12% pre-pandemic. These establishments are not just businesses; they are the heart of our communities, representing dreams, passions, and social connections.” 

Kelly Higginson, President and CEO of Restaurants Canada.

LR- Toronto’s One Love Vegetarian Restaurant falls under this statistic.

JC- Most people who own a vegan restaurant might be very passionate about veganism, but not necessarily have the culinary training to make the best food possible. They don’t have the atmosphere, are they investing in their team? Every chef in Toronto could be a top-notch vegan chef if they wanted to. They choose not to.

For Gia Restaurant, it was like pulling teeth to get a Chef in here to cook all vegan. It’s the same methodology, it’s a choice. Can they make a cheesecake? Absolutely. Can they make that cheesecake with coconut milk instead? For sure. We’re making our meatballs and Bolognese exactly like we would if it was meat-based, but with Impossible Meat instead.

stefano's sandwiches-chicken, plant based restaurants
Stefano’s Sandwiches Vegan Fried Chicken Sandwich

Haven’t Watched Bad Vegan Yet? It’s Prime Time You Did

LR- And the price point, the value. Is it there? Just because it is not meat doesn’t mean it can or should be cheaper. Gia Restaurant was formerly Ufficio, a seafood-forward restaurant. But you pivoted during Covid to bring us Gia, in 2021. Then you brought in Stefano’s Sandwiches as a pop-up.

JC- Gia is a restaurant with a proper wine list and good service. We actively pivoted away from the dining room to create accessible food. Stefano’s Sandwiches, the concept of crave-able and addictive plant-based sandwiches came at a perfect moment. And then realizing that the dining room and space were best suited for sexier exploits like Gia, we knew there were missing elements.

rosalinda-bowls and tacos
Rosalinda, located in the city’s downtown core, closed in early May

LR- And now Stefano will have its own storefront soon. That sort of full-circle thinking, of anticipating what guests want, both food and atmosphere-wise isn’t always front of mind for some restaurants.

JC- We don’t know why these restaurants specifically went down. Are there just too many restaurants? Rosalinda got hurt by the pandemic and then bought by O&B which gives it a different slant. Gia Restaurant is not 100% vegan. It’s plant-forward. When that restaurant is a niche of one eating style, you will have a smaller population of diners. If six people are seated at Gia at a table, one of those six will be fully vegan.

eat nabati- Israa Ali
Eat Nabati– Israa Ali’s Egyptian Plant-Based Restaurant in Kensington Market has been open since 2020

First Look- Stefano’s Sandwiches Gets its Own Address

LR- Meanwhile, so many more regular restaurants are adopting or adding a fully vegan or plant-based menu…

JC- Like Pizzeria Libretto, it was all pizza originally. Now you don’t just go there for pizza. Does everyone at the table actually want to eat pizza? No, there are salads and more now. The more restaurants that adopt a vegan or plant-based menu detracts from our market share. Most restaurants have one or two vegan options that they didn’t offer before, that’s going to directly effect and water down our foothold.

pizzeria libretto margherita
At Pizzeria Libretto, you can substitute any cheese with a housemade vegan fior di latte for any pizza

LR- And then the politics and opinions run hot for animal lovers and those who enjoy eating animals…

JC- There are a lot of people who don’t think people should be vegan. The fact that meat-eaters are always commenting on what vegans are eating is strange to me. If a vegan is trying to get a meat eater to go vegan it’s coming from a place of compassion. Almost anyone now will eat vegetarian, but vegan is that big jump.

fresh kitchen and juice bar-ruth tal, plant-based restaurants
Ruth Tal of Fresh Kitchen and Juice Bar, which shuttered its Spadina location earlier this year

Other Notable Toronto Plant-Based Restaurants that closed include – Apiecalypse Now!, LOV and Hello 123

LR- What do you attribute to your success? On the heels of Stefano’s Sandwiches opening this summer can you share some of your secret sauce for budding restauranteurs?

JC- Uber Eats is necessary as a marketing tool. Getting your name out where people are searching has been crucial for our brand. We also adopt a very strict guideline of standards. That level of strictness to provide to the public is very difficult. So we’re plant-forward at Gia. But plant-based at Stefano’s. Be intentional and deliberate with the utmost transparency. We always provide every single ingredient so you can trace allergies and know with certainty what you’re eating.

Photo of Jennifer Coburn and lead photo, Stefano’s Sandwiches, courtesy Gia Restaurant.

All other images are by Libby Roach.