A dish made with Layonna’s gluten-free fried rooster, one of many Oakland firm’s greatest sellers. Credit score: Layonna

Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market
443 eighth St. (close to Broadway), Oakland
Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., supply is through DoorDash

Ever surprise the place the Flying Falafel will get its savory fake rooster? Or the place The Butcher’s Son will get its succulent mock shrimp? What about Aburaya’s vegan drumsticks? The key’s out: All of them come from Oakland’s Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market, which has been offering meatless choices for eating places and residential cooks since lengthy earlier than phrases like “past” and “not possible” had been synonymous with plant-based eating, and again when “meals tech” referred to newfangled money registers, not enterprise capital-backed protein efforts.

Layona Lee, then an East Bay resident, based the enterprise in 1995, partnering with a number of Taiwanese producers to make Layonna-branded meals. The corporate was supposed to be eponymous, says Samual Wong, who’s owned the store since 2015.

“When she filed a enterprise license, she accidentally put in two Ns,” Wong stated, so Layona the individual owned Layonna the market, working with quite a few distributors to make Layonna-branded meals. In the course of the 20 years she owned the corporate, she by no means bothered to vary the identify. 

Peter Fikaris, who owns Berkeley vegan bakery and deli The Butcher’s Son along with his sister, Christina Stobing, stated his household has used Layonna’s merchandise throughout two generations. 

“We owned a vegan restaurant again within the ’90s in Berkeley; our father opened it and we labored there as youngsters,” Fikaris stated. “It was known as Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner. We didn’t make a number of our meat substitutes in-house like we do now, so we used a number of Layonna’s meat substitutes on our menu,” he stated. 

Layonna’s latest product is a vegan Spam substitute. Credit score: Layonna/Facebook

Again then, Layonna was “just about a one cease store for all the things and something on the earth of vegan meats.”

Whereas vegetarian and vegan eating places had been already in style in Berkeley within the Nineteen Nineties, again then, eating places that provided meat-like dishes for non-meat eaters had been much less ubiquitous than they’re now. Layonna stuffed that void.

“I turned to meat substitutes as a result of I missed consuming their animal-based counterparts,” Fikaris stated. “I appreciated consuming meat.”

Nevertheless, “I didn’t like the concept of consuming animals,” Fikaris stated. “It bothered me quite a bit.”

A long time later, Layonna provides a slew of East Bay eating places just like the aforementioned Butcher’s Son and Flying Falafel, in addition to Jack London Sq. Thai spot Farmhouse Kitchen and SF’s Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya and its Berkeley counterpart, Tane Vegan Izakaya. You’ll additionally discover Layonna’s meat substitutes at quite a few space meals vehicles, Asian temples and at SF’s Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl.

While you go to, you’ll be able to see why: The array of foods available through Layonna is actually mind-blowing, together with all the things from vegan pepper steak to vegan sea cucumber (regardless of sharing its identify with a plant, the ocean cucumbers you’d discover within the ocean are actually animals). There are frozen faux meats, dried snacks and jerky, bulk soy proteins and a panoply of gluten-free nuggets and cuts.

Layonna’s hottest objects are its gluten-free vegan fried rooster, and its gluten-free vegan rooster legs, Wong stated. The newest addition to their record of choices is a vegan model of that Hawiian-cooking standby, Spam. “It’s actually good,” Wong stated. “Near 99% actual Spam.”

Layonna’s vegan abalone is made with konjac powder, tapioca starch, sugar and sea salt. Credit score: Layonna

Wong, who’s initially from Hong Kong, defined his entry into the world of vegan meat alternate options as an sudden flip in his life. 

“I’m simply an peculiar Asian man, graduated from college, bought a school diploma, after which bought an workplace job,” Wong stated. “In 2015, by way of a coincidence, I met Layona.” Finally, he expressed curiosity in shopping for the enterprise, working below her for a spell earlier than taking the operation over. 

“Layona was making an attempt to retire and I labored together with her for 3 months,” Wong stated, then the enterprise was his. However Layonna hasn’t seen the final of Layona, even now, Wong stated. 

Although Lee herself moved to Taiwan post-retirement, she’s nonetheless concerned, since most of Layonna’s merchandise are nonetheless made there. “Layona has turn into our high quality management,” Wong stated. “She has a really shut relationship with our producer and makes certain all the things is examined.”

That spotlight to element is rising increasingly vital as well-funded rivals enter Layonna’s mock meat ring. However in response to of us like The Butcher’s Son’s Fikaris, demand is rising too.

Persons are turning to meat substitutes “for his or her well being, for the planet, for the animals,” Fikaris stated. But in addition, “it’s as a result of they nonetheless love these meals, and are searching for an possibility extra suited to their present choice.”

Elise Proulx graduated from UC Berkeley in 1991. After residing elsewhere for a couple of many years, she returned to Berkeley in 2009 and hopes she by no means leaves.

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