Urban Herbivore changed the Toronto landscape for plantbased fast food when it first opened its doors 12 years ago with a tiny café in Kensington Market. The café has since expanded, as has the Urban Herbivore concept. There are now three locations including 64 Oxford Street (Kensington Market), and The Eaton Centre Food Court, with a brand new location opening soon in Union Station. The man behind it all is chef, food pioneer and restaurant veteran, Stephen Gardner. We spoke with Stephen to catch up on where the concept is at today, and where it’s heading.
What was the original concept/inspiration for Urban Herbivore?
I opened the first Urban Herbivore in Kensington Market with the intention of hosting a community space where I would offer cooking classes and seminars. I wanted to play off of the theme of Kensington Market and all that it had to offer. But I quickly learned I couldn’t fit all of my dreams under one roof. I was able to follow through with installing a green roof, produce a plantbased menu, source produce directly from local farmers, use organic ingredients wherever possible, use no refined sugar or processed ingredients, and provide 100% biodegradable take-out packaging.
Has that original concept evolved/grown as the business has grown?
The original UH was a café with limited seating and menu options. Over the last 12 years, we have expanded not only the square footage of the Kensington Market location, but also into new arenas with greater foot traffic. We have had to slightly tailor some of the menu items to be more efficient to serve. With the addition of a few fun rotating menu items, our food and concept is the same as it was from day one: plantbased whole food for herbivores in a hurry.
What is your restaurant’s specialty/best selling item(s)?
These can be grouped into seasonal preferences. Winter: Sweet Potato Club Sandwich with “Cheeze” and a Berry Blue Smoothie (blueberries, banana, apple, oats, lemon, cinnamon). Summer: Possum Bowl (watercress, kale, romaine, marinated mushrooms, broccoli, black beans, “cheeze sauce”, roasted Yukon & sweet potato, red onion, coconut “bacon”, tahini dressing) with a glass of our house made Pineapple Lemonade.
What has the growth process in the city been like? When/How did you know when it was time to expand and how do you choose the next location/neighborhood?
For a plantbased restaurant, foot traffic is important. You need to be accessible, either along the TTC route or at a major destination like Kensington Market. But to be honest, expansion, like any real-estate, is all a gamble. When I find myself with a little more free time on my hands, it’s time to start looking for new projects.
Who is your clientele? (Is it mostly dedicated vegetarians? The veggie curious?)
You know, 12 years ago, we were definitely a gold mine for vegans simply because veggie options weren’t so available. But now, I think the driving force is environmental foodies. Toronto is a food mecca. We love to eat out. And for all of us that participate in this “fast-food” lifestyle, Urban Herbivore lends a quick, whole food option that isn’t destructive to the environment.
What do you enjoy most about what you are doing?
I think my satisfaction comes most from knowing that the food that Urban Herbivore provides is one of the healthiest food options in Toronto. Besides seeing regular guests and the relationships that we have created it is great being able to put legs to my ethics and see them in action. I value a sense of environmental sensibilities and an awareness of social responsibility. We practice stalk to root cooking and are vigilant in our composting efforts. All of our packaging is compostable except for two lids and we don’t sell bottled water for that same reason even though we get many requests for it. We donate some of our baked goods to a local charity organization and try to care for our family of employees as well. We have quite possibly the most liberal food policy in the industry, our employees can enjoy a meal in one of our stores at anytime as long as the store is open regardless if they are working that day. I have deeply held convictions and these guide all of our practices.
Fast-food is not what is used to be. Thanks to Urban Herbivore, it’s possible to get nutritious and delicious food – fast. Health conscious food that is also socially conscious and sustainable. Urban Herbivore and Stephen Gardner are expanding your options for fast, fresh, plantbased food as they evolve and expand their menu and locations. Urban Herbivore made our list of the Best Restaurants with Gluten-Free Options. Look for their new location in Union Station and exercise your option to eat well on the go – it will make your body and mind feel good.
Urban Herbivore and Greenrock are proud to be members of your community. For information on our Village Green Community at 50 Alexander Street, 40 Alexander Street and 55 Maitland Street – please visit our website.