Q&A: Hellenic Vincent de Paul, the guy who’s trying to make “Vegandale” a thing
It’s official, veganism is taking over the world—or at least a one-block stretch in Parkdale, now referred to by some as Vegandale. The city’s first cruelty-free dining and lifestyle mecca is already home to three successful vegan brands (all owned by the same parent company), and will soon include four more vegan destinations, set to open over the summer. We spoke to Vegandale’s unofficial mayor, Hellenic Vincent de Paul, about why Toronto needs more vegan dining, how his cat convinced him to go cruelty-free and why Meatless Mondays (and Beyoncé) are bull.
Two years ago you opened Doomie’s, a place for vegan comfort food in Parkdale. Now you are the unofficial mayor of Vegandale. How did that happen?
Actually we started in 2015 with the Vegan Food and Drink Festival, now called the Vegandale Food Drink Festival. That’s where I met chef Doomie. There was a two-and-a-half-hour lineup for his vegan Big Macs! Doomie’s started as more of a passion project, and then it became a huge success so things sort of took off from there. We opened the Imperative, a vegan clothing and housewares shop, and then Mythology, a vegan diner. We started calling the area Vegandale amongst ourselves—kind of as a joke. And then other people started using it and then there was a hashtag….
So, is Vegandale an actual place or just a clever marketing hook?
It’s both. Definitely we are interested in promoting this August’s festival. But we are also trying to create a cruelty-free hub in Toronto where people can come and experience the vegan lifestyle. We want Vegandale to be a place, not just for vegans, but for the “vegan curious”. We’re an ethical company, meaning we’re on a mission to spread our message. A lot of people seem to have the impression that we’re trying to take over Parkdale or change the name. We aren’t trying to do either—Vegandale is simply a growing community within the already-vibrant Parkdale.
You recently announced three additional projects in the same area. What can you tell us about them?
We have leases on three new spaces in that we plan to open in the next year—all in the same area of Parkdale. One is going to be a dessert spot, one is a project with Michael Duggan from Mill Street and the third one…I don’t really want to say anything about that one yet. We’ve been able to get these spaces because a lot of restaurants in the area have gone under. I think there’s a misconception that we’re this massive company coming into the neighbourhood and buying up all of the real estate. That’s not the case.
So you’re not some kind of vegan overlord? Your name definitely has a certain kind of ring to it.
Ha! I’m actually named after the ship that my dad worked on. I’m Sri Lankan, but he was working in Greece and he just really loved the name Hellenic.
You mentioned that a lot of restaurants in that neighbourhood are going under, but your places are obviously thriving. Is that a vegan thing?
I think that the vegan market in Toronto is still under-served. Our first festival had 5,000 attendees, and we’re expecting 20,000 this year. Unlike a lot of other places, we aren’t afraid to market veganism as a moral and ethical issue. You’ll see restaurants using the term “plant-based” instead of vegan. I tell my employees to never use the term “plant-based.”
Do you ever worry that your uncompromising stance might put people off? I’m thinking of signs outside Doomie’s that say things like “Baby steps are for babies. Be an adult. Be vegan.”
I think if you look at the neighbourhood we’re in and the age of our most of our clientele, that it makes sense. Of course there are people who find that sort of attitude alienating, but I think the majority of people understand that we’re having fun while talking about an issue that we see as very important.
You refer to yourself as a “vegan extremist.” What does that mean?
I call myself a vegan extremist because I view veganism as a social justice movement and a moral imperative, and not a movement that is based on a trend, a diet or a movement for the environment. Believe it or not, no animal rights organizations treat veganism as a moral imperative. If they did we wouldn’t have ridiculous campaigns like Meatless Mondays, or give someone like Beyoncé or Ricky Gervais who are not vegan a thumbs-up. We have a moral obligation not to exploit animals, and veganism should be presented as such. And yes, as cliché as it sounds, I like to talk about veganism as much as possible!
Like the one that goes “How can you tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry—they’ll tell you.”
Exactly! Just to clear it up, though, what I think is extreme is the unnecessary killing and exploitation animals. A lot of people think that veganism is a diet or that it’s about the environment or it’s about being healthy. Veganism is about none of that—it was coined by Donald Watson and it is strictly to end the exploitation of animals.
How do you feel about semi-vegan movements like Meatless Mondays?
I know that very few people go vegan overnight but instead make incremental changes. That said, since I see veganism as a moral issue, I’m not going to promote something like Meatless Mondays. It perpetuates the stereotype that veganism is a diet and something you can dip in and out of. Look at it this way—if you and I both agree that bullying is wrong, we wouldn’t say let’s have bully free Mondays. That would be crazy. I believe our aim and our goal is total veganism.
But wouldn’t you say that more people eating vegan—even occasionally—gets you closer to that goal?
I get what you’re saying and sure. But I still go back to the moral argument—we wouldn’t advocate racism-free Mondays.
Did you grow up in a vegan household?
Not at all. If you told me 10 years ago that I would be vegan, I would have said you were crazy. I wouldn’t even eat a salad if it didn’t have meat in it! And then my wife brought home a cat one day, and we started having these conversations about the difference between harming the animals that we eat versus harming this pet. And we just couldn’t justify it. One night we went to one of our favourite restaurants where we always ordered the lamb burger, and we both realized that we didn’t want to eat it.
So let’s say we’re friends and you’re coming over to my place for a barbecue. Are you able to relax and have fun, or are you lecturing me about why we shouldn’t be eating burgers?
Every vegan has to acknowledge that we live in a non-vegan world. My parents have barbecues in the summer—it’s just something you have to get used to. If you want to have a conversation, I’m always happy to talk about it, but I’m not going to tell you what you can or can’t cook in your own house.
Last week Beyoncé announced she’ll be going vegan in preparation for her tour. Presumably you disapprove?
I saw that. It’s frustrating to see a major celebrity perpetuating the idea that veganism is a diet plan; a way to lose weight as opposed to an ethical issue. I guess when someone like Beyoncé talks about veganism on her Instagram, she is normalizing it, whereas 10 years ago vegans were seen as crazy hippies. Still I think she does a disservice in showing her fans that veganism is something you move on from. That’s not our message.