Kendra Arnold and Marisa Sweeney, the founders of VegFest, have been making their mark on the vegan community since 2015. The popular vegan food festival has traveled all over the state, taking place in the Meadowlands, Atlantic City and Asbury Park, and has grown to reach thousands of people every year.
With their VegFest plans put on hold this year due to Covid-19, Sweeney and Arnold have launched an online vegan market called The Vegan Local. Consumers can support their local vegan spots or try new ones from around the country by ordering online and getting the items shipped to their front door.
“A common theme with VegFest and the Vegan Local is to continue to foster the vegan movement through growing the small business community,” says Sweeney. “And there’s never been a time where they needed it more.”
We caught up with Sweeney and Arnold to ask about their involvement in the vegan movement, their new online marketplace, and why it’s so important to remember to shop (and eat) locally.
Table Hopping: How did you two get involved in the vegan food industry?
Marisa Sweeney: Kendra lives maybe a block or two away from me in Morristown, and we just ran into each other on the street one day and had an idea. The stars aligned at the time and Kendra said we should do these vegan food festivals. The more we talked about it, the more we realized we wanted to create community, which we find to be really important because vegan, by definition, is not just a diet. It’s really an ideology.
It’s not the easiest thing being plant-based in New Jersey. So how are we attracting the right people to find out what plant based small businesses and restaurants there really are? Maybe right even in their backyard. How do you bring these people together to create a community of like minded people?
TH: Do you use the same vendors every year at VegFest?
MS: It’s growing for sure. In the past five years the vegan movement has picked up a little bit more mainstream traction. There’s been more vegan plant-based businesses and more people that want to participate. Even some of our vendors get big enough that they’re in big retail stores like Whole Foods and Kings.
TH: How did you come up with the idea for the Vegan Local, your online marketplace?
Kendra Arnold: We had the idea a few years ago but just didn’t have the time. In April, Marisa called me up and said we should revisit this. We really got to work and launched it six weeks later.
MS: When we first got involved with this we thought this was going to be an extension or even an arm of the New Jersey VegFest, but it’s a whole new learning curve. The overall response has been pretty freakin’ awesome. It’s just to keep the [vegan] community going because it’s either evolve or dissolve at this point.
TH: How does the process of the market work, from ordering to receiving the products at your door?
KA: We take orders from Sunday through Saturday for the whole week. Then we send the orders to the vendors and that’s when they start making their products, so everything gets shipped out the next week. For vendors, I would say we have 20 to 30 of them from all over the place.
MS: This online platform allows us to have a national presence because we can ship to 48 states. The Vegan Local is already everywhere because it’s online, so how can we localize it more and find who’s the best to the best at making vegan food all over the country? So you can get that ridiculous vegan cheesesteak in Philadelphia when you live in California.
TH: And you don’t just have food on the Vegan Local, right?
KA: It’s mostly food, but we have a lot of clothing and self-care stuff, like shampoos, soaps, and jewelry.
MS: It’s all sustainably sourced, non-animal products. It’s weird what stuff ends up having animal products in it. We have stuff like that so people know it’s coming from actual eco-responsible companies.
TH: What kind of vendors do you seek out?
MS: Being in the vegan community for 5 years, a lot of small businesses have approached us. We learned that if we have vendors that are selling hummus and green juice, that is stuff vegans eat all day, every day. There’s nothing interesting about it.
When you get somebody out there making vegan pizza with garlic knots as the crust, or somebody making a chocolate chip cookie stuffed with brownie batter that’s what is going to draw people out. It’s meant to be stuff that you can’t get, you know?
TH: Do you two have any vegan favorites?
MS: I would have to say Freakin’ Vegan [based in Prospect Park]. He makes vegan mac and cheese and empanadas. Everybody loves Freakin’ Vegan.
KA: Root 9 [based in Whippany] is an amazing cookie company. They’re enormous and stuffed with brownie batter and peanut butter. I think that’s the one thing about our events and the Vegan Local is that people think that vegan food is healthy food all the time. I wouldn’t say we have all health-food, it’s like food for foodies.
TH: Your online market supports local small businesses from all over the U.S. Why do you think it’s so important to support these local businesses, especially now?
KA: A lot of these places were really having a hard time, especially when everything first closed down. Supporting them in any way we can to keep the movement growing I think is really important.
MS: The New Jersey VegFest not only was a marketplace that drew community around these small businesses, but it was also like a business incubator. It fostered the growth of a lot of these plant-based small businesses. It’s a hard target market and it’s smaller than mainstream. Now that Covid hit, we really didn’t want to stop fostering the movement.
The Vegan Local, based in Morristown, delivers the best vegan foods from across the country right to your front door. Online orders close on Saturdays each week and are shipped out the following Wednesday. Shop from places all over the US or locally. Shipping to 48 states. Email [email protected] or call 973-520-6560.Click here to leave a comment