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Trigger Warning: Most vegan food sucks. I said it. Are you telling me that grilled tofu tastes better than fried chicken? I’d choose the fried chicken eleven times out of ten. If you wouldn’t, you’re a liar. Or a vegan like me. Well, sort of. Sometimes I come up a bit short, so I guess my appropriate dietary pronouns would be V/Veg/Vegetarian   (damn you to hell, cheese!). 

Telling someone, “I don’t eat meat.” 15 years ago would induce the response, “Do you eat chicken?”. A lot has changed in the way we consume food in the past 15 years, especially for those who follow a plant-based diet. Most people today have experimented with a plant-based diet in one way or another. Nowadays, when I tell someone I don’t eat meat, I can usually expect to hear a story about someone they know or their own experience with a plant-based diet. I long for days when I could politely say, “No, chicken is meat too.”.

15 years later, I’m being asked to share my story. My story is no different from anyone else’s. It’s the same story you repeatedly hear over and over; Man Stops Eating Meat for Significant Other: Goes on to open a successful vegan restaurant in Miami. In my opinion, that’s all anyone needs to know. Let’s be honest, you didn’t buy this book to listen to me rant. You want the recipes, I know. Recipes with some stunning photography and links to video instruction online. I really wish it were that easy. Apparently, you need more than recipes to make a recipe book. After a couple of email exchanges between my publisher and me, I was told in unambiguous terms, “You do not have a book without an introduction.”. The irony of it all, like this book, I had to be persuaded into a plant-based diet introduction. 

Ever since I tried to curb my meat consumption, it was always because of someones else’s opinion. It was for someone or something other than animal welfare, or even my own personal growth or something. My wife is vegan, so we decided to raise our daughter on a vegetarian diet. I personally wasn’t fully on board with a vegan diet for an infant, so this was the middle ground for us. I tried my best to cut the meat out of my diet in an attempt at solidarity. I did honestly try. I can’t remember the exact details, but I was eating meat again by month six if I had to guess. While everyone was sound asleep, I was up most nights with hunger pains. I wasn’t hungry because there wasn’t food to eat. I was hungry because there wasn’t any food I WANTED to eat. Tofu, quinoa, and sprouts, oh my! Every meal I ate was like the beginning of someone’s terrible “bacon joke.” 

After months of eating healthy, I finally broke. One night I found myself en route to Flannigins for their full rack of ribs and fries.  At first, I thought I could bargain with it. I thought maybe I could have indulged every quarter of the year, as stupid as that sounds. That quickly turned into once a month, and as once a month turned into once a week, my scheme started to get sloppy. I paid with a shared credit card my wife and I used on one visit. A few days later, she sat me down with our credit card statement in hand.  “Why so serious?” I asked as she silently grilled me. “What?” again I asked,  and without skipping a beat, “What were you doing at Flannigins?” 

I should have just made up a name on the spot because, in hindsight, I think she preferred the idea of her husband having an affair with a waitress instead of a full rack of ribs. “No, this isn’t BBQ sauce. It’s lipstick!” I should have said. After my wife discovered my dirty little secret, I repented for my sins and immediately got back on the vegan gospel. Regardless of why I finally stopped eating meat, none of that matters. I stopped eating meat. It felt good, and I was finally a real vegan.  

 

I was full of righteous indignation.

Eating sprouted radish seeds was my cross to bear. After forty days of devout dedication, I ordained myself lord of the vegans. 

Social media became my church, and with the power of self-delusion, a narcissistic personality disorder, and a dash of neurosis, I annoyed all of my friends. If anything I only affirmed their love for meat.

After a while, even I began to get sick of myself. Still, it wasn’t until a fellow friend in the restaurant business told me, “Focus on the product and just make good food. If people want to be lectured with their meal, they will go to the Salvation Army.”. How can you argue with that? It was around this time when I started to buckle down and craft the recipes of what would become the foundation of Atlas Meat-Free.

As I toiled away in the kitchen day in and day out, making one mess after another, my recipes didn’t happen overnight. My poor wife, tasting each dish along the way, went from fully supportive and enthusiastic to weary and cautious with each bite. Stubborn as ever, I refused to quit. The tipping point was when my wife and I invited our daughter’s friend and her parents to try the food at our house. I was so nervous at the time, and even though the recipes were close to complete, my nerves got the best of me as I prepared them. Some dishes were overcooked, and some were undercooked. 

All in all, this was not my best, I can admit that. As the dinner ended and the drinks began to pour, my wife and I discussed the idea of our concept to open Miami’s first all-vegan deli. To be honest, I really didn’t care for the father, so when he scoffed at the idea, I was more determined than ever to do what I said. That’s all I needed. High on spite, I did everything to lay the groundwork for what became Atlas Meat-Free Delicatessen's production model.


I have an oppositional defiant personality, and I don’t think I would have achieved it otherwise. The main focus has always been on animal welfare and making delicious food. Still, I tell people that spite is the secret sauce that makes it taste so good. And after almost a year later, we were better than good. Even though the recipes have drastically changed over the years, we finally had something we were proud to serve. We just needed a location to serve food. 

Opening a full-scaled restaurant around an untested product would have been a colossal mistake. Sure, we loved our food, but the “Meat-Free Meats” weren’t in high demand in 2013, and everyone I knew laughed at the idea. I forgot how I found it, but after looking around for a little bit, I stumbled on a farmers’ market. Not just any farmers’ market, but an indoor market with over 100,000 square feet of space with electric and running water. It was perfect for what we needed. Operating out of the Yellow Green Farmers' Market allowed us to engage with an audience in real-time.

The term meat-free wasn’t widely used back then, almost unheard of, so when people would walk by, they would break their necks as they turned to take a closer look at my sign, “Atlas Meat-Free Deli x MEAT-FREE MEATS.” It was the same knee-jerk call and response each time. “What’s meat-free...” and before they could finish the question, I would have a sample in hand ready for them to try. Most customers sampled my entire menu before ordering a sandwich and taking home meats and cheeses by the pound. After just a few months at the farmer’s market, I started to build a solid following. We had lines spilling over into other vendors’ booths that even they began to sell more just by us being there. Our social media was gaining steam, and other local restaurants were interested in using our meats and cheeses as part of their menus. Publications, regional and national publications, were all interested. The only logical conclusion was to expand.

With burgeoning real estate prices, it would take a miracle to find a reasonably priced property in Miami. Our best bet was to look for a fixer-upper in a developing neighborhood. I opened my first food truck in 2010, operating in Wynwood, Miami, before it was really safe to walk and eat around at night. Rent went from $9 a square foot to over $100 in a few years. Everyone and anyone that made Wynwood what it became was eventually forced out. It was a cultural exodus, and the wind began to blow in another direction.

As real-estate prices continued to climb and as spaces became increasingly harder to find,  my wife and I set our eyes on Little River, Miami. It was perfectly positioned on a main road with high visibility, about 15 minutes away from my house, and super affordable. Little did we know what we were in store for. As each month went by, our remodeling project soon became an entire restoration project. Our plan was to be open in 7 months, and as we were past our first year, we realized how bad things were going.

As real-estate prices continued to climb and as spaces became increasingly harder to find,  my wife and I set our eyes on Little River, Miami. It was perfectly positioned on a main road with high visibility, about 15 minutes away from my house, and super affordable. Little did we know what we were in store for. As each month went by, our remodeling project soon became an entire restoration project. Our plan was to be open in 7 months, and as we were past our first year, we realized how bad things were going.

To keep our momentum going and funds coming in, we decided to permanently park our food truck in the backyard lot of our building. Even though this was a temporary solution while our building was being renovated, we wanted it to look our best. We built a facade around the front of the food truck with a booth for placing orders that was custom painted. I potted plants everywhere, hung lights, set up fans, live music, and I even bought a Street Fighter arcade game... it was perfect. Until it wasn’t. I had enough space to accommodate large crowds, and as time went on, we definitely needed it. Lines got longer, social media got larger, and more restaurants wanted our food. My personal favorite was to be the first vegan contender in South Beach Food & Wine Festival’s Burger Bash event. Atlas Meat-Free Delicatessen was rapidly becoming the most popular vegan restaurant in Miami. Even though we were just operating out of a food truck. Everything was moving forward. Everything except for one thing. 

Two years later, our building was worse than where we began. One thing after another, it didn’t stop. We were plagued by a series of regrettable events. Unfortunately, it was too late when we figured out how bad the situation was with our building. It became unsustainable between our mortgage, kitchen rent, and being overstaffed. What was supposed to be a year turned into four. As of today, we sold the property, and since COVID-19, we have yet to reopen. But this book isn’t a book about that. This cookbook is a celebration believe it or not. A cookbook with a long-winded introduction that I really didn’t want to write, but just like everything I resist, I’m glad I did. 

In the end, I’ll leave you with my script from my farmers’ market days. Atlas Meat-Free Delicatessen is prepared using traditional cooking techniques with minimal cooking equipment. It’s a great source of protein and is low in carbohydrates. Carnivore devoured and approved, we handcraft bold, full-flavored vegan deli and comfort food that everyone will appreciate because we make extraordinary food... and now you can too! 

 

You never know what the future holds; never stop working towards your dreams. Destiny is a definite and inexorable ruler.

– Ryan Bauhaus

#JourneyWithAtlas
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