In an example of focused fine-tuning, Pitchforks is the result of a ho-hum vegan spot turned craveable, trend-setting concept on the campus of Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. Previously known as Terre Ve, the station, located in the main dining hall, hadn’t generated much excitement.
So a year ago, after a period of testing a few new vegetarian menu items at a grab-and-go location, Terre Ve became Pitchforks, still a completely vegan station, but now with a street-food/comfort-food vibe thanks to cool new recipes developed by Jennifer DiFrancesco, associate director/chef with Chartwells at Canisius.
“The concept of Pitchforks evolved from our goals of increasing vegetables and grains as food choices for students across campus,” says John Tychinski, director of dining services. “After the test at our On the Go (grab and go) program where we saw a dramatic increase in the vegan/vegetarian items sold, we knew there was a demand that we just weren’t tapping into.”
Items like a mac ‘n cheese bowl made with sweet potatoes and chickpea pasta and a pulled “pork” sandwich made with grilled, shredded king oyster mushrooms have been met with enthusiasm.
Rachel Pawelski, a student and former campus VegClub president, is one of the fans.
“I love bragging about the incredible vegan options at my school,” Pawelski writes in a letter to the dining team. “My new classmates have said that Canisius is easily one of the most vegan-friendly and healthy campuses they’ve seen.”
While it’s difficult to track exact numbers since Pitchforks is part of an all-you-care-to-eat dining hall, the production and usage at the new venue compared to Terre Ve have gone up 400 percent.
A focus on sustainability was at the forefront while the revamp took place, and the dining team worked with a budget of just $5,000, making signage in-house, using reclaimed wood from a fallen barn and repurposing decor found at Buffalo Restore and Buffalo ReUse, which support Habitat for Humanity.
Adopting an inclusive, omnivorous approach, DiFrancesco has strategically peppered other dining halls and retail locations across campus with vegan menu items, encouraging a well-balanced diet with lots of veggies and grains and not as much meat.
“For example, in our Latin American Sabor Fresca concept, you have a plant-based ‘chorizo’ option for your taco or burrito,” Tychinski says. “And at our Italian Alynea’s station, we serve a ‘beef’ Bolognese with a garbanzo bean-based pasta.”
“Vegan Pizza Wednesday” has expanded to “Vegan Pizza Wednesdays and Thursdays,” and the new catering menu, rolling out later this summer, will include 160 vegan items like Buffalo “chicken” wings, “beefy” lasagna and “chicken” enchiladas and avocado tempeh Reuben sandwiches.
Meat substitutes like tempeh and tofu make a lot of the faux-meat components, and some items (the fake pulled pork, for example) are made with vegetables that can stand in for meat, like mushrooms.
These plant-forward changes have already yielded signs of being on the right track.
The grab-and-go location has committed to 50 percent plant-based offerings (and actually went up to 65 percent), and saw a 76 percent increase in year-on-year sales.
Overall meal plan participation is also up 8.25 percent, something that can’t be directly traced back to the new plant-forward menus, but Tychinski and DiFrancesco believe it’s been a driving force.
DiFrancesco has been recognized by the Humane Society of the United States, and she’s traveling to other college campuses to share what she’s learned about creating flavorful, fun, plant-forward menus.
Starting this fall, all of the desserts on campus will be vegan. Pastry Chef Allison Covelli has come up with some tempting items, including vegan s’more cupcakes.