By FRANK SABATINI JR. | La Mesa Courier
It’s been tough being a vegan in East County. Plant-based eateries are scarce, and mainstream restaurants and retailers still cater largely to carnivores.
But things are looking brighter with the recent arrival of the First Friday Night Market, a vegan festival that operated in fits and starts within a small North Park parking lot until moving to a spacious section of Grossmont Center’s vast parking lot.
The event runs from 5 to 10 p.m. the first Friday of every month. It’s located between Fuddruckers and Chuze Fitness.
La Mesa resident Marcia Quinn couldn’t be happier.
“I didn’t go too much when the market was in San Diego because of Friday traffic. But now I can drive only 10 minutes for foods I love, like vegan sushi and some really good sweets,” she said while approaching the tent for Maya’s Cookies.
The cookie vendor uses in its confections dry potato starch instead of eggs as a binder, and Earth Balance vegan butter for richness.
A few slots away, Eric Glover of Kelly’s Croutons engaged attendees with crouton samples sporting cashew-based Parmesan dustings. Headquartered in Orange County, he takes his products to more than 40 vegan fests around the world every year.
Wafting down the entire row of merchants were the aromas of foods ranging from hot dogs and carne asada made with mock meats to roasted tamales, potato dumplings and bulgogi nachos. To the average meat eater, the sights and smells seem like any you’d find at mainstream festivals.
First Friday Night Market originally kicked off in the summer of 2018 through a partnership between the nonprofit organization Vegan in San Diego and the former Anthem Vegan Restaurant. It was from Anthem’s parking lot in North Park where the event began catching the support of both herbivores and omnivores from all over San Diego County.
“We started out with only five vendors in North Park and now have almost 20, six of them non-food vendors,” said Carly Morales, founder of Vegan in San Diego and director of the monthly market.
After Anthem shuttered, the market was held a few times in another San Diego location, at Fair@44 in City Heights. It then briefly moved back to its original spot when new owners took over Anthem. But that arrangement soon dissolved.
“We were looking for a new host when Grossmont Center contacted us asking if we’d like to hold it there. So we did some online surveys to see if people would come out to East County, and we got really good feedback,” Morales said.
The move paid off. Attendance has tripled since the market migrated to La Mesa in September, according to Morales. A beer garden hosted by the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce was added in October. And for the Nov. 1 market, Morales expects to see least 10 additional vendors taking part.
For now, the partnership between Grossmont Center and Vegan in San Diego is in a trial three-month contract. But Morales is certain it will continue beyond that.
“This is the first time a vegan market has come to La Mesa,” noted Mary England, president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, which is no stranger to hosting beer gardens. “We did six years of the big beer garden at La Mesa’s Oktoberfest, from 2008 to 2014,” added England, who was selling a variety of cold, canned beers from Mike Hess Brewing.
Outside the fenced-in beer area, Christa Maier sat eating at a table with her husband and young son. They were enjoying sambosas, collard greens, eggplant and lentils from the vendor, Flavors of Africa.
Residents of El Cajon, the trio used to drive to the market when it was in North Park.
“This is so much closer and has tons of parking,” said Maier. “There’s not many places in East County to get good vegan food. This has a nice variety all in one place.”
Adds Morales: “We’re trying to get everyone to see how delicious and accessible vegan food can be. And some of our vendors, such as By Rosaline, do fun things with their food presentations to make it feel like a party.”
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.