The Zen Butcher: A Vegan's Delight
Farmers' markets have become small business incubators, places where food entrepreneurs can conduct in-person market research with willing consumers. Over the years, the Riverside Arts Market has served as a launchpad for many local ventures, including one of North Florida's first plant-based "meat" makers, The Zen Butcher Company. Founded by Adam and Samantha Sievens, what began as a business to help friends in their transition to veganism, over time became a practice in advocating for animals, especially after they adopted their pot bellied pig, Hamlet. We caught up with Adam and Samantha to talk plant-based meat over lunch a few weeks back, and quickly learned that even the best laid plans to picnic, will change in the company of pigs. Our new friend Hamlet stole the show -- just before gobbling up our lunch.
Tell us how The Zen Butcher Co. got started.
My boyfriend, Adam, and I came up with the concept of The Zen Butcher Co. through our mutual love of animals, food and acro-yoga. Adam and I were very good friends before we started dating, and a majority of our friendship was built on our mutual love of food. Adam and I would hang out at Acro Yoga class and after class we would go to one of our homes and host a potlucks for all of our friends. Adam and a majority of our friends were vegan so all of our potlucks were 100% plant-based. This was a huge help for me since I was a “new” vegan at the time and struggling with transitioning meat and cheese out of my diet.
Adam noticed how much I was struggling with this transition to veganism so he introduced me to a vegan food called "seitan." We both grew up with a passion for cooking so we immediately started manipulating traditional seitan to create something new. Our goal was to produce high quality, handcrafted seitan that resembled the texture and taste of real meat.
We started adding seitan to all of our Acro Yoga potlucks and immediately noticed how much everyone loved it. Seitan made it possible to enjoy the home-style meals we grew up on, like our favorite, baked ziti with "ground beef." Except this time it was animal free and just as delicious!! We quickly realized we weren't the only vegans who missed meat. And even more so, there were a lot people who were new to the vegan lifestyle that needed help with that transition.
Around that time Adam and I moved in with one another and decided to add a fur-baby to our lives. So we contacted a local pig rescue and adopted a baby pot bellied pig we later named Hamlet. We immediately noticed how intelligent, caring and unique Hamlet was and realized we needed to do our part to help animals everywhere.
After thinking it through we realized creating a vegan butcher shop would be our way to help animals everywhere and people who are trying to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. Adam and I were determined to take the concept of a traditional butcher shop and give it a more compassionate twist. And so, The Zen Butcher Company was born!
What kind of background did you each have in culinary or foodservice?
My partner and I were very fortunate that we both grew up in homes that allowed us to be in the kitchen at very young ages. We were able to learn from our mothers, grand-mothers and great-grandmothers who still influence us to this day. My family is Colombian and Puerto Rican so at a very young age I sat around the kitchen table prepping arroz con gandules, arepas and pasteles for family dinners. My partner Adam grew up in a Filipino household so by the age of 9 he perfected his garlic fried rice, pancit and lumpia rolling skills. These cooking styles made a huge impact on us over the years and we still incorporate many traditional spices and techniques in our vegan meats and vegan cheese.
What are some of the hurdles and opportunities to sourcing local on a consistent basis? What could be done to help bridge this gap?
For us buying local is huge! One of the biggest opportunities to sourcing locally is having access to fresh, high quality ingredients. This is a huge for us because we take great pride in providing high quality, handcrafted food and in order to accomplish that goal you have to use fresh high quality ingredients! By buying local it allows us to see the growing conditions first hand and we can trust the quality of the companies we are working with.
Unfortunately, there are also some hurdles that come to sourcing locally. Most of these hurdles are due to the fact that not every plant can handle Florida’s climate and must be grow elsewhere. Perfect example is wheat, which happens to be one of our top ingredients. Wheat cannot handle Florida’s climate so we must source this ingredient from growers out of the state. If more local businesses grow their online presence and become more involved in their community we believe this will help bridge the gap with potential buyers and will help attract new customers to knock on their doors.
Why did you decide to start selling first at a local farmers' market?
My partner and I built the business with the intention of being a community-minded company. To us, this simply means we did not want to be another brand at the store that you could not trust. Instead, we wanted to show the community who we were and how we put our dollars to good use helping those around us. We decided the best way to accomplish that goal was to get directly involved with community events such as local famers’ markets. By selling at the farmers' market we were able to raise money for the Jacksonville Humane Society, collect clothing/food donations for Hurricane Irma victims and gather pumpkins as donations for rescued farm animals Rooterville Animal Sanctuary! It’s a blessing being able to give back to the Northeast Florida community, and the only reason this has been possible is because of the trust our customers have in us.
What future goals do you have for the company?
Our goal is to show everyone how delicious and easy an animal-free diet can be! The first step to accomplishing this goal is to make our vegan meats and cheese available nationwide! We are already working on that goal and have just been accepted into our first two grocery stores. You should be able to find our products on shelfs throughout North Florida before the end of the 2017! The second step to this plan is working with local chefs and restaurant owners in order to develop custom vegan menus and offerings. We started offering this service to local restaurants throughout Jacksonville and currently offer our products on menus such as TacoLu, Sunray Cinema and many more!
How does your pet pig Hamlet feel about the business and products?
Oh goodness he loves it! Hamlet is a total goober and adores ALL of the attention, especially if it involves Cheerios or testing our newest flavors! Hamlet gets tons of requests to visit local farmers’ market and VegFest’s, but his number one goal is to be the “piggy nap king.” Which means a lot of those events get in the way of his vigorous training. Luckily he gets plenty of time to train for the nap Olympics while we work.
To sample their products, visit the Zen Butcher Company at Riverside Arts Market on Saturdays or check their website for availability.