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For ‘STL Veg Girl,’ plant-based restaurant week will take the stress out of vegan dining

Caryn Dugan stands in a farmers' market wearing a white shirt and black shorts with her hands in her pockets.
Provided by Caryn Dugan
Caryn Dugan, also known as “STL Veg Girl,” has planned the region’s first vegan restaurant week.

This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” at noon Friday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.

Caryn Dugan started her journey with veganism in 2008. She soon came to be known as the “STL Veg Girl” and started sharing her newfound passion with the St. Louis community. Now, she’s making vegan food more accessible than ever, bringing the region its first-ever plant-based restaurant week in early May.

Dugan has enlisted 15 restaurants in Kirkwood and Webster Groves to participate in the event, including Mike Duffy’s, Balkan Treat Box and Clementine’s Creamery. Each participating restaurant will feature several plant-based items on its menu throughout the week.

Dugan said when she first became a vegan, it was difficult to go out to dinner with friends or family — she’d always have to call restaurants before going and figure out what she could eat.

“I kind of felt like I was an annoyance more than anything else,” Dugan said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “When one person in a group of friends or in a family decides to change their diet in any way, then they’re kind of a buzzkill — let's be real — for everybody else. It's like, ‘What is Susie the vegan going to eat when we go out tonight?’”

Dugan’s goal is to eliminate those feelings of stress around the dinner table. She hopes this restaurant week will show vegans and meat eaters — and restaurant owners — that it doesn’t need to be difficult for everyone to find a meal they can enjoy.

“Shouldn't going out with friends and family be a treat, something you look forward to, not something you should become anxious about?” she said.

Listen: How 'STL Veg Girl' planned a vegan restaurant week

When Dugan sought out restaurants to participate, she said she didn’t want to put them out too much. Her hope was to show chefs that creating and featuring plant-based dishes didn’t have to be a massive undertaking.

“I understand the state of the hospitality industry right now. It's really tough — labor shortages, the supply chain,” she said. “I really don't want anyone to go out and buy ‘crazy’ vegan ingredients that they have to learn how to use, and then after the week they won't ever use again. Nobody has that kind of time or money.”

Instead, she suggested featuring already-vegan menu items, or doing something as simple as taking the cheese off an otherwise-vegan dish — or creating something new with ingredients already on hand.

Dugan is passionate about spreading the word about plant-based diets, crediting veganism for changing her life. Her dad died of cancer in 2008, and 10 weeks later, Dugan herself was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. After realizing she wasn’t as healthy as she thought she was, she turned her lifestyle around — and now she helps others do the same through her organization, the Kirkwood-based Center for Plant-Based Living.

“I have people come into the shop all the time who have adopted a plant-based diet, and you won't believe how it has affected their health,” Dugan said. “I have a gentleman who's been coming into the shop for the last two years and is a dentist. He's lost 120 pounds.” After 20 years, she said, his Type 2 diabetes is under control.

With the community and support Dugan has seen for this first restaurant week, she hopes to expand the event for years to come. And she’s glad to see people making efforts to try new plant-based foods at restaurants they love.

“There's some really great things happening, and I'm just tickled to death that people are excited about this almost as much as I am.”

Related Event
What: STL Plant-Based Restaurant Week
When: May 1-7
Where: See the full list of participating restaurants here

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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