Toronto’s culinary scene just got a lot healthier and tastier with the June opening of YamChops at 705 College St, in the heart of Little Italy – the city’s (and perhaps the world’s) first vegetarian butcher. “What is a vegetarian butcher?” you ask, “it must be an oxymoron!” But once you check it out, you will want to keep coming back for their vegan Smoked Apple and Sage sausage, Carrot Lox, Mongolian “Beef” and many other original vegetarian prepared foods.
When I first visited YamChops, I was immediately struck by the bright open space punctuated by splashes of colour, highlighting the attractive displays of fresh and frozen foods. But perhaps most impressive was the ultra-friendly attitude of the staff, who are enthusiastic and will let you sample nearly all foods on offer. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or meat lover, I guarantee you will find something that will suit your tastes. It’s seriously tasty eats. And they even do online orders for delivery!
I had the privilege of sitting down with YamChops owners Jess and Michael Abramson, a dynamic father-daughter duo, to pick their brains about how business has been going so far, perspectives on food trends, and also what’s next for YamChops. Read on!
Interview with YamChopsCo-owners Jess and Michael Abramson spill the legumes...
Q: A vegetarian butcher is an incredibly on-point and timely concept. Tell me about the journey that has culminated in the opening of YamChops.
Michael: This has been a concept for 8 to 10 years in my head – our family’s head – if you will. Originally, I was thinking of a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. And then I decided I don’t know that I want to work in a restaurant – the hours, the manpower, the turnover.
I really felt there was something missing in the good quality, prepared food market for vegans and vegetarians, but also for flexitarians. So YamChops was born from that.
We sold our agency (AdLib Group) 2 years ago, and we put in a year in the transition. We spent 9 months finding a location, building it out and opening our doors. The response has been magnificent, both in terms of customer and the media which has been so gracious.
We hoped it wasn’t a niche – but we really didn’t know. When you open any new business, it’s a bit of a gamble. Thankfully, it grasped on quickly.
Q: It’s a beautiful and inviting space that makes you want to come back.
Michael: Philosophically, we instituted a policy here where people are going to come in, and they’re not going to know what stuff is, what stuff tastes like. We 100% sample down the line.
There are only a few items we can’t sample because they’re not cooked. But sampling is part of our marketing, especially for the flexitarian market. They know they want to go veg 2 or 3 times a week but they don’t know what they want to cook. They end up with pasta a lot, or pasta and salads. This gives them greater options to have things they are familiar with flavour-profile wise, but also something they are familiar with in terms of the convenience of having the prepared meals to take home or eat here.
Q: Which neighbourhoods did you consider and why did you ultimately choose Little Italy as your location?
Jess: We looked everywhere. We looked at the Junction, Queen West, St. Clair West. We live in the West-end so we didn’t want to travel to the East End, but we did look even at East-end locations. We just didn’t find any place as ideal as this (College St.) location – not just for the walk-by traffic, but the condition of the space. A lot of the basics were in place … so the build-out was relatively painless. This side of College is more shopping as opposed to restaurants. We love it here. The (Little Italy) neighbourhood has just embraced us.
Q: It’s been a month since opening. How are things going and how have you been getting the word out about YamChops?
Jess: It’s been great. Certainly better than we could have expected in terms of both the community response and people coming from as far away as Buffalo, North Carolina New York, Windsor, Ottawa, Montreal.
People are really paying attention and finding out about it through different media, and also just word of mouth.
We haven’t put out a press release. We haven’t done a grand opening. So everything that’s happened has just kind of happened to us – which is just amazing. To date, the only activity we’ve done is a direct mail drop of postcards promoting our lunch program, our social media, and that’s it. We’ll see what other stunts are required. We’ve got lots in our back pocket if we need to!
Michael: We have a wall at the back which are requests from around the world for YamChops locations. We’re up to 81. It brings tears to my eyes. We’ve got requests from Greece, Israel, Scotland, South Africa, Japan.
Q: This is a family-run business. Is your whole family vegetarian or vegan?
Jess: We represent the whole spectrum. Michael is the only one who currently is vegetarian. I am eating mostly vegetarian, as is my sister. And my mom will eat anything you put in front of her. And both my sister and I have been vegetarian at different points. So we’ve all experimented with different diets. The most important part is that we have high standards in what we prepare and serve to our customers, and frankly, consume ourselves. This is pretty much all I’m eating these days!
Michael: As an organization, we’re not preaching vegan is good, raw is good, vegetarian is good, meat is bad.
Jess: We do preach great flavour and great service. Those are bottom lines for our customers. We want to give people an experience … an out-of-the-box twist on a meat dish is enough of an experience and is enough to surprise someone and bring them back. (Our customer base) encompasses the whole range, from animal rights activists to people doing it for health reasons.
Q: Who gets credit for all the great puns in your company and product names?
Jess: (laughing) We both take credit, and we also take flack occasionally. We had funny feedback on some of them. “Don’t you know Au Jus (YamChops’ cold-pressed juice brand) is a meat-based sauce – well yes we do, that’s why we chose it!”
Michael: We’ve got a lot of experience. Both Jess and (sister) Leia had agency experience (at AdLib Group). We were never satisfied as an agency with the status quo. We’re living it here. Jess came up originally with the name “Fillet Grignon” which we really liked. But we were worried about spelling, how would people read it. And then the next day, driving down the street, YamChops came, and it fit. Au Jus came right out of YamChops. The (word) play on the dishes is a play on the dishes. It’s fun.
Some vegans think we shouldn’t do what we do. And some meat eaters too.
It’s funny, they sort of put us down for using meat in a different way. But they don’t get mad that coconut milk is not milk. Or coconut ice cream – they don’t get mad that it’s not cream. But meat, don’t mess with the meat! We’ve gotten close to hate mail.
Jess: But it’s been good debate that it’s generated. You have people saying that vegetarians should want stuff that tastes like meat. Other people are saying, of course they do, they may have had meat once and they may crave meat and they can’t have it. It’s healthy conversation.
Q: How are you influenced by different world cuisines in developing your recipes?
Michael: I lean heavily to Asian flavours, just because that’s a palate that I enjoy. East Indian, South Indian, Thai, Singaporian, Malaysian cuisine. These are recipes that I’ve developed over the years. I formalized my chef training about 6 years ago. I could always cook (but) I needed a confidence boost that a degree gives you. They’re all in natural foods – I got vegan/vegetarian, plant-based, and professional vegetarian. All of those exposed me to different flavours.
We like cool stuff, we like making lox out of carrots, bacon out of coconuts, pork out of cabbage. It just shakes up the world a bit – and that, we like to do.
(Jess) and her sister weren’t really sporty. So we spent our time in the kitchen. We cooked thousands of meals together. That was our daddy-daughter time.
Q: Who are your favourite chefs, those who inspire you or you’d like to collaborate with?
My personal god is Susur Lee. I think the man is beyond talented.
His ability with flavour and unusual combinations. I can’t get my head there. I do some pretty weird things. He is just amazing. There is someone in the plant-based world called Chad Sarno. Just superbly creative. He’s passed, but Charlie Trotter has a beautiful vegetarian cookbook as well.
That said, I’ve probably logged in two hundred thousand hours watching the Food Network. From the Bobby Flays – the whole world of chefdom intrigues me. They may do Caribbean-style chicken, and there’s no reason I can’t do it (with veg chicken). For our coconut bacon, I saw a show on how they cure bacon.
Jess: Susur for sure. We always got the vegetarian tasting menu (at Susur). He seemed as adept at vegetarian items as with meat, which is rare.
What are your best-selling items on the menu?
Tuna-less Tuna, Beet Burger, Coconut Bacon (in descending order).
Lunch box delivery is an interesting concept. Tell me more about this. How has that been going so far?
Jess: The gap is for quick and convenient, healthful food. We recognize that not everyone can come visit us. It’s a great option for them to eat during the day, or have their staff to eat during the day. We launched with the capability to deliver lunch boxes. Now, we will pretty much deliver anything from our menu. So far so good! One night we felt like a Chinese takeout! It was awesome. People who can’t access us for whatever reason – time or ability – they really appreciate getting that door-to-door service.
We also have a nice feel-good for our Toronto deliveries. We use an organization called Good Foot Delivery which employs intellectually and physically disabled individuals to do deliveries using TTC. We have one of those individuals working at the store from time to time and doing deliveries right now.
(Good Foot Delivery) is one organization that we feel awesome about supporting helping to grow. And they are helping us out too.
Lightning Round!Jess and Michael had to choose one and state why
Michael: And he brought his health back. He had a quadruple bypass, went vegan, and now he’s a walking health machine. About ten years ago, we went to see him talk, about four thousand people in a room. When the man talks, it’s like he’s only talking to you. This guy is good; you can see why he was unanimously elected. He’s a great humanitarian.
Both: I’d go smoked paprika!
Michael: Smoked paprika is a smokey and sexy flavour.
Jess: I’ve gotta go un-Canadian on that answer. I’m a big Whole Foods fan. I used to sell products to Whole Foods across the States. I have a lot of respect for that organization.
Michael: I definitely have respect for Whole Foods, but I’m St. Lawrence Market all the way. We were there every Saturday for 15 years of our lives. We know those people. I love St. Lawrence!
Jess: Now, if you had asked about Halifax market, I would have chosen that one. I used to spend a lot of time there. Like the St. Lawrence, but more cubby holes to get lost in. And lots of interesting banjo and bagpipe music!
Michael: I wouldn’t say we interchange them, but we have the same respect for both of them.
Jess: When it comes to juice, 100% raw!
Wrap-UpWhat's Next for YamChops?
Jess: We’re hoping to take a day off at some point. A full day!
Michael: What started out as my little red sports car had a great possibility to be more. We have the youth involved that can make it more. We’ve put it off until we’re two months old before we have expansion conversations.
YamChops Featured RecipeTuna-less Tuna
- 3 Cups Cooked Chickpeas
- 2 Tbsp Red Onion – fine dice
- 1/2 Cup Celery – fine dice
- 1/4 Cup Pickles – fine dice
- 1/4 Cup Capers – rinsed well
- 2 Tbsp Nori flakes
- 1 tsp Sea salt
- 1/2 tsp Black pepper
- 1/2 Cup Vegannaise
- Soak chickpeas overnight (approx 2 Cups). Drain and cook in lightly boiling water until tender.
- Mash chickpeas with a potato masher to break them up to “tuna” size pieces.
- Add onion, celery, pickles and capers and mix well. Add nori, salt and pepper and mix.
- Add vegannaise and mix.