Buy This, Not That! (Vegan Dairy Edition)

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | April 27, 2023

Credit: Veganuary

My predecessors on this blog have posted some great vegan product reviews (for example, Beyond Chicken, vegan cream cheese, Daiya cheese review). With the rapidly changing landscape of vegan products available and a landslide of new products in the last 3 years, I want to throw my recommendations for vegan dairy products into the mix! 

A note on credibility: These are my personal recommendations. I’m not a professional food critic nor am I affiliated with any of the brands mentioned. I’ve worked in the culinary industry for 5+ years, including a lengthy stint at a plant-based protein company, where taste tests of cutting-edge vegan products were the norm. This, combined with the fact that I’ve been a vegan food aficionado for the past 8 years, puts me in a decent position to give some solid recommendations. 

Vegan dairy is a dauntingly vast subject, so I’ve limited myself to one “Buy This: Winner,” one “Buy This: Runner-Up,” and one “Not That!” (aka the “loser”) per category. Read on, fellow shoppers, for my takes on the best and worst plant-based products out there!

Plant-Based Oat Milk

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: *Disclaimer* I happen to really enjoy Pacific Foods oatmilk – it has a decently strong oat flavor and its sugar content makes it perfect for use in sweet baked goods. However, many people I’ve surveyed dislike the overly sweet flavor, … so if you are sensitive to sweetness and frequently enjoy your oatmilk straight from the bottle, go for one of the winners. But if you’re like me and mostly use oatmilk in baked goods, I think Pacific Foods is a decent choice.  

Plant-Based Soy Milk

Buy These!

Not That!

  • I haven’t tried a brand of soy milk that I think is really bad, so I’m putting my least favorite plant milk in general here: Ripple Pea Milk

Synopsis: Silk is the OG for a reason. This original soymilk is everything you expect from a well-rounded plant-based milk without being overpoweringly soy-forward. I also think its slight sweetness matches what you get from dairy milk. The O Organics is also a solid choice, but it’s only available at stores that sell the O Organics brand (e.g. Safeway). While Ripple may have improved its formula since I last tried it, it ranks as my least favorite plant-based milk (too prominently pea-forward with an obnoxiously oily texture). In general, avoid plant-based milks that use lots of oils and emulsifiers. These usually result in textures that are less than desirable.  

Plant-Based Almond Milk

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: I buy almond milk when I want something light and refreshing. I find it’s best paired with something like coffee or cereal. It’s also a great thirst-quencher on hot days when you want something slightly more exciting than water. Califia unsweetened provides exactly this without being too watery (a common defect of almond milks). Sorry Almond Dream, your ingredients list contains far too many emulsifiers, starches, gums, and non-almond ingredients to warrant a purchase from me. 

Best Plant-Milk All-Rounder: Silk NextMilk Whole Fat

Synopsis: This unique blend of oat and coconut provides a surprisingly neutral flavor and a nutritional profile that’s very similar to dairy whole milk. This plant milk is perfect for all uses, whether you like it in coffee, cereal, baked goods, or straight out of the bottle. 

Plant-Based Coffee Creamer

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: If a traditional, thick and creamy coffee creamer is what you’re after, Silk’s lineup of creamers fit the bill beautifully. All of them mix seamlessly into other beverages. I think their Sweet & Creamy Almond version is especially tasty. Oatly Barista Edition, on the other end of the spectrum, is a light creamer that has a nutritional profile more similar to whole milk. But if you want something that’s a little lighter for your morning latte or flat white, this is an excellent choice. While the thought of mixing macadamia nut milk into your cup of joe may make you feel fancy, Milkadamia doesn’t blend very well into coffee and is a bit too bland and watery for me. 

Plant-Based Cheese

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: I’m pleased to report that choosing one winner was very difficult for me, so I opted for two! That’s right – we’re now living in an age where decent and (dare I say) delicious vegan cheeses abound. While Violife Just Like Feta does melt easily (unlike real feta cheese), it has a delicious flavor that is perfect crumbled raw into salads or baked onto a pizza. Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda has one of the best flavors in the vegan cheese game. It’s the ultimate slice for melting onto a burger. And Chao is the most versatile of the bunch – I use this cheese for everything due to its mild, pleasant flavor and excellent meltability. 

Plant-Based Cream Cheese

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: Giving up dairy cream cheese was one of the most difficult aspects of veganism for me. I spent years “enduring” Tofutti’s riff on non-dairy cream cheese, and while it doesn’t come close to the real thing, it scratched the itch for a creamy spread on my morning toasted bagel. That’s why I was over-the-moon delighted when more realistic shmears hit the market, like Violife and Treeline. I frequently use Violife Just Like Cream Cheese in baked goods – from cheesecakes to quiches and beyond – and also enjoy Treeline’s cream cheese on bagels and mixed into scrambled eggs. 

Plant-Based Butter

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: For simply spreading on toast and other topical applications, Earth Balance is fine. But the last several times I’ve tried to use it in baked goods, it results in a very off putting flavor. This was confounding to me because I’ve used Earth Balance for years, so I’m guessing their recipe has changed. In contrast, Country Crock’s bold, rich flavor fares very well in baked goods, as long as you don’t mind a slight (but not unpleasant) almond flavor (almond oil is in the ingredients list). WayFare performs excellently as a spread. It actually ranks near the top of all the vegan butters I’ve tried for flavor. But use it as a finishing butter/spread; it isn’t a great choice for baked goods due to its high water and air content. 

Plant-Based Ice Cream

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: The brands that are lauded for making the best dairy ice creams also put plenty of research into their non-dairy desserts. Both Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s knock it out of the park when it comes to vegan ice cream. Peanut butter lovers will love the Haagen-Dazs peanut butter chocolate fudge, while Ben & Jerry’s has a simpler, more vanilla-forward Milk & Cookies flavor. I don’t think So Delicious Cashewmilk desserts are bad, but there are certainly better products available at a similar price point. 

Plant-Based Yogurt

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: Kite Hill can be thought of as the ferrari of plant-based products due to its lineup of high-quality (and pricey) items. Their Greek-Style yogurt provides vegans with a thick and creamy texture reminiscent of dairy Greek yogurt, while also packing a protein punch comparable to the dairy counterpart. This is a big deal! Vegan dairy products often lack protein, and the ones that do contain protein often fall short in the flavor department. It’s rare that a company nails both criteria. So Delicious is a great choice for a slightly thinner consistency that’s plain enough to be a blank canvas for cooking, baking, and garnishing. For chocolate lovers, Silk’s got you covered with its delicious Chocolate Coconut flavor. 

While eggs aren’t considered “dairy,” I thought they still deserved a place in this article, especially because eggs and dairy are frequently used together in the same recipes.

Plant-Based Eggs

Buy These!

Not That!

Synopsis: JUST Egg is simply the best eggless egg product out there. Expertly crafted from a blend of mung bean protein, canola oil, and emulsifiers, it looks like eggs, tastes like eggs, and cooks/bakes like eggs. The only downsides are that you don’t have the versatility of making fried eggs with an intact yolk, and the shelf life is shorter than regular eggs (even sitting in the fridge, I’ve found that it spoils surprisingly quickly). In contrast, BeLeaf offers a delicious pre-formed vegan fried egg. The texture is like a fried “over-hard” egg (the yolk is not runny) and it’s decently convincing. Coming in last place, while the bright packaging and inviting yellow color of Simply Eggless may entice some shoppers, for me, the texture and flavor are a far cry from real scrambled eggs. A few years ago, this may have been a hit, but we’ve been spoiled by ultra-successful products like JUST, and now it’s hard to settle for anything but the best. 

The Wolf Cafe Has Some of St. Louis’ Best Plant-Forward Options

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | March 21, 2023

Ample seating and art provide an inviting ambiance for students at The Wolf Cafe

“Eat Real Food” – the motto of The Wolf Cafe is concise, comprehensive, and clearly describes the tight operation at this unassuming yet impressive eatery. Although “real food” might be defined differently by different people, most would agree that it includes criteria like minimally processed ingredients, cooked from scratch, non-GMO, organic, humanely treated, locally sourced, etc. 

Artistic rendition showing where The Wolf Cafe sources its main ingredients

The Wolf Cafe delivers on all fronts by serving up deliciously handcrafted meals and bites with just about as good a program for sourcing locally as one could hope for. Eggs come from local cage-free hens, bread and baked treats are from St. Louis-based Companion and Sugaree Bakeries, coffee is from Ballwin-based Birdsong Coffee Co., and all meats come from humanely treated, vegetarian-fed, hormone-free, and locally sourced (where possible) animals. 

The Wolf Cafe proudly advertises its commitment to sustainable disposal

Furthermore, The Wolf’s team has a keen eye for sustainable disposal by using packaging that’s  “compostable, recyclable and made from as close to 100% post-consumer waste whenever possible” (more on their sourcing and sustainability here). In fact, you won’t find a single trash can in the entire building! 

Ordering counter at The Wolf Cafe, with “Grumpy Hour” and “Happy Hour” deals

If that isn’t impressive enough, we haven’t even started on the food. I mean, come on, the food! This cafe is far from basic and serves much more than coffee and pastries. The extensive menu is divided into categories like coffee, soups & salads, starters, burgers & sandwiches, desserts, and a bonafide breakfast menu. They even have a kid’s menu and retail/pantry items!

A typical lunch spread at The Wolf Cafe

If it’s vegetarian or vegan food you’re aiming for, look no further, as there are 18 food items on the dinner menu that are meat-free. And the plant-forward options aren’t just the vegetarian “cop-outs” that you’ll find at many restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Beyond Burger, but sometimes I yearn for something a little more creative. And creativity is what I love about The Wolf Cafe’s plant-forward items, which range from the Portobello Reuben, to the Vegan Gumbo, to the Chickpea Sandwich, to the hearty 3-Bean Chipotle Chili, to name a few.  Many of the non-veg items (like burgers) have the option to swap in vegetarian proteins, and you can click “Make Vegan” on the online menu as a worry-free option to try most items without animal products. 

Avocado Salad

There are a few standout dishes worth reviewing here. To start, the Avocado Salad contains a delightful assortment of smashed avocado, pepitas, crispy chili chickpeas, pickled veggies, and an amazingly tangy honey-lime dressing. In fact, all of the dressings and sauces I tried from The Wolf Cafe fall into the “jaw-drop” category. It’s really heartwarming to find a small establishment with a culinary team that clearly puts a lot of thought and effort into little details like this. 

Hummus Plate

One of the starters I ordered impressed me for its elevated take on what’s often a boring classic: the Hummus Plate. The Wolf’s hummus is infused with horseradish for a subtle kick and topped with “olive relish”, which brings a welcome briny bite. The three generous scoops of hummus are accompanied by a variety of crisp veggies and lavash crackers, so you have no lack of dipping opportunities. Next time, I’d like to try the Balsamic Chips made with local Billy Goat potato chips and melty gouda cheese. 

Patty Melt with kimchi

I’m a sucker for Patty Melts, so I had to try The Wolf’s rendition of this American classic. Notable features about this cafe’s version are that it’s served burger-style with buns and includes the option to add fun toppings like kimchi (which I happily opted for). The usual inclusions of caramelized onions, cheese, and Russian dressing make this burger an instant go-to item on this menu. Other great choices on the burger menu are the Beyond Burger and the creative Dill-Bert Burger (which includes dill havarti cheese, bacon, avocado, and dill pickles). 

Chickpea Sandwich

One of the benchmarks I look for in any eatery advertising itself as plant-forward is the chickpea salad. If they can get such a simple vegan menu item right (well-seasoned with appropriate spices, good consistency with partially smashed and partially intact chickpeas, crisp veggies, etc.), I have high hopes that the kitchen is detail-oriented enough to produce a variety of other successful menu items. The Chickpea Sandwich ticks all the boxes for me – and then some. The chickpea salad is perfectly seasoned and well-textured, and the inclusion of pickled veggies, sprouts, avocado, tomato, and spinach on multi-grain bread elevates this sandwich to something that anyone – not just the vegans – will love. Other great sandwich options are the “Black Bear” black bean burger, Salmon BLT (with wild-caught salmon), and the Stang BBQ Chicken (with prairie-raised chicken on a pretzel bun). 

One of two pastry cases at The Wolf Cafe (Betterfinger Bar shown top right)

There are far too many enticing goodies in the baked goods window to choose just one or two, but the Betterfinger Bar (vegan & gluten-free) is a phenomenal option. It’s sort of like if a Clif Bar met a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and had a baby that contained crunchy rice bits and sprinkles. It’s compact, rich, nutty, and chocolaty with an addicting crunch to boot. Some other baked treats worth trying are the peanut butter pie and carrot cake made locally by Sugaree Bakery, or the vegan chia bar and granola bar. 

As I washed my meal down with a Companion Kombucha (also a local St. Louis company), I reflected on the overall experience. I’ve been to The Wolf Cafe before for takeout and enjoyed the food, but this was the first time I’d sat down to really appreciate the artistic selection/design of the interior, the attitude of the employees, and the overall ambiance.  I’m guessing people (like me) are drawn in by hearsay of the clean, eclectic, and alluring menu, and then they become lifelong customers after experiencing the friendly service and cozy ambiance. 

It seemed almost too good to be true to have a successful eatery in my neighborhood that focuses on clean, local food, and community. (I usually have to drive into downtown St. Louis for this kind of experience, thereby facing the inevitable traffic and parking difficulties.) Even though many of the restaurants in the surrounding area have meat-heavy menus and prioritize profits over anything else, The Wolf Cafe’s success is no mystery to me: it just feels good to support a business with an incredible ethos and commitment to sustainability!

One of several murals decorating walls at The Wolf Cafe

Bakers & Hale: Godfrey’s Only Farm-To-Table Fresh Eatery

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | Feb 28, 2023

Driving through the northern reaches of Godfrey, you’d be forgiven for thinking the freshest option is apple slices from McDonald’s. It’s a sea of endless restaurant chains and a seeming dearth of quality, locally-owned establishments. Enter Bakers & Hale – an exciting exception to the fast-food frenzy. 

Spacious extended dining area at Bakers & Hale

Opened in 2018, Bakers & Hale is a self-proclaimed farm-to-table restaurant that’s family owned and operated. Chef & Founder Kelsi Baker Walden opened the eatery with support from extended family, who are constantly networking within the community to expand their tasty, local offerings. What they can’t grow in the garden nestled behind the building (which gifts the restaurant with tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, chives, basil, dill, oregano, etc.) they try to source locally. Examples include oyster mushrooms from Missing Meadows Mushrooms (Staunton, IL) in the Vegetable Orzo entrée with goat cheese and fresh herbs, and pork from the Wenneman Meat Company (St. Libory, IL) for the grilled Pork Steak entrée with a BBQ bourbon glaze. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, check out the varied menu items, which range from the loaded brisket nachos, to the Asian chopped salad, to the irresistible gyro bowl. 

Flash-Fried Brussels Sprouts – pistachios, feta, and honey-balsamic glaze

Principia College’s Center for Sustainability has been a friend and fan of Kelsi’s since her debut, and during our most recent visit we were more than satisfied with her current offerings. We began with a delectable round of starters. The incredibly addicting flash-fried brussels sprouts had an oh-so-sweet-and-tangy glaze and the well-crisped outer leaves provided a delicate, satisfying texture. The fried pickled vegetables included an assortment of seasonal picks like cucumber and green beans, and the zesty cilantro ranch sauce added creamy balance to the pickled brightness. Everyone agreed that they could easily make a meal out of “starters”! 

Veggie Pizza – pesto, seasonal veggies, goat cheese

Entrées with simple names like “Veggie Pizza” should not be overlooked. This particular menu item completely stole the show. Its rich pesto base, paired with a medley of local mixed mushrooms, zucchini, bell peppers, basil, mozzarella, and goat cheese made this a dish bursting with fresh flavor. And the thin yet surprisingly buttery yeast-risen crust more than complemented the creamy toppings with crisp, textural contrast. 

Gyro Bowl – beef & lamb, cauliflower rice, feta, tzatziki, kalamata olives

The Gyro Bowl was also a fan favorite. This Mediterranean classic gets a unique twist with cauliflower rice yet delivers comforting, bold flavors with gyro strips made from beef and lamb. It’s served with all the familiar fixings like red onion, tomato, cucumber, kalamata olives, feta, and tzatziki sauce.

Fried Pickled Vegetables – cucumber, green bean, cilantro ranch

The Veggie Orzo and Mushroom & Gouda Burger were also notable members of the feast. We especially enjoyed the tangy goat cheese and selection of herbs in the orzo. And the fried onion rings in the burger provided a satisfying contrast to the thick, juicy patty. These dishes are a perfect example of the abundance of fresh ingredients and variety offered at Bakers & Hale. While the menu certainly has more meat-centered dishes than meatless ones, there are several vegetarian gems and vegan options are available when you ask your server. So don’t be shy! 

While the food is outstanding and more than worth the trip, it would be a mistake to sleep on the social events organized by the Baker family. The establishment is known as a gathering spot for exceptional local musical talent (see full schedule here). In addition, Wednesday bike nights, “All-Wheels Cruise Ins,” and Thursday open mic nights round out the event schedule and keep the establishment a lively and fun community hotspot during weeknights. 

Baker family photos

Fresh food, friends, family, community, mission-driven purpose… Bakers & Hale has it all and is ready for your solo visit, date night dinner, friend gathering, or private party (in its large, extended dining area). Support local food systems and treat yourself to what’s sure to be a soul-satisfying outing at the restaurant soon!

Maeva’s Coffee: A Workplace & Hangout-Haven

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | Feb 20, 2023

A selection of from-scratch goodies tempts customers in Maeva’s pastry case

The coffeehouse hidden within the old Milton Schoolhouse may be one of Alton’s best-kept secrets. It’s one of those, “if you know, you know” gems for students at Principia College. And once you know, you’ll likely find yourself making repeat latte runs whenever the opportunity presents. 

Located in downtown Alton, Maeva’s Coffee can be found after following signs down a winding passageway in the historic schoolhouse. (The meandering journey helps reinforce its perception as a hidden gem.) As you near the entrance, you’ll wander past increasing amounts of potted greenery and art until you emerge into a warmly lit and tastefully decorated cafe room. Maeva’s instantly gives off comforting, friendly vibes. This is reinforced by grinning baristas who will quickly greet you and a well-stocked pastry case. 

Verdant plant-life just outside the Maeva’s café room

In an age of coffee chains that minimize labor and use cheap ingredients to maximize profits, Maeva’s is a refreshing oasis in a veritable desert of quality cafes. Just about everything you can purchase is made from scratch or requires some loving preparation by the team. In the fall, a sign describing the pumpkin spice latte reads, “Nothing basic about it: real pumpkin puree, fresh grated nutmeg, China cassia cinnamon, clove, and vanilla bean. 100% handmade.” This ad is indicative of the quality of all goods purchased from the team of dedicated bakers and baristas. On my latest visit, a barista sold me on the house chai after explaining that their homemade concentrate gets made in the wee hours of the morning, involving spices simmering for upwards of 5 hours. The tantalizing treats in the pastry case are freshly baked in their incubator kitchen, located below the coffeehouse. Oh, and they roast their own coffee, too. 

There’s something for everyone on the menu as the baked goods area is stocked with an assortment of muffins, coffee cakes, hand pies, frittatas, quiches, and cheesecakes. They do a great job of providing gluten-free and vegan options, and the savory snacks always include a vegetarian option. They even serve a vegan curry chickpea salad with crackers!

Vegan chickpea salad is one example of the plant-based options at Maeva’s Coffee

I can personally vouch for the deliciousness of the plant-based chocolate chip banana muffins. The tender crumb and rich, buttery flavor would have fooled me if I hadn’t seen “vegan & gluten-free” written next to it. Also, I think I raved to at least 10 people about the cinnamon roll cheesecake the day I tried it. With ribbons of cinnamon meandering through the dense, cream-cheesey base, and a generous piping of cream cheese frosting on top, it was one of the most delicious and decadent cheesecakes I’ve ever had. For $3.50 per giant slice, I’d choose this homemade creation over the cheesecake factory any day! 

Cinnamon Roll Cheesecake from Maeva’s Coffee

For being hidden in a tiny room in an off-the-beaten-path schoolhouse in Alton, Illinois, few would expect the level of quality dished up at Maeva’s Coffee. Such explains its cult following: once you become acquainted, it’s hard not to become a loyal patron. So the next time you’re in the mood for a cup of Joe or snack, give Maeva’s a try. Make sure to clear your schedule though because you may find yourself still in the cozy space, hours later, wondering where the time has gone!

House Chai & Vegan/GF chocolate chip banana muffin

“Old Bakery Beer” Slings Out Delicious, Plant-Forward Food

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | Feb 13, 2023

Picture this: you’re a student at Principia College craving satisfying vegetarian food. 

You’re a little weary of tofu & rice bowls, salads, pasta, beans, and the Beyond burger from the pub. You want a change of pace. You want some excitement. You want something new and fresh. But living in rural Illinois (once a veritable plant-based-food desert) presents challenges. Previous Prin alums might suggest you just suck it up and make a hummus & cucumber sandwich, or drive to Panera for the limited meatless selection. But fortunately for you, this is 2023 – and you have options! 

One of the best nearby restaurants is the Old Bakery Beer Company, conveniently located next to the Mississippi River along Landmarks Blvd (just before Taco Bell & McDonalds). While a certified-organic craft brewery might seem like an odd choice for the average Prin student, there’s a lot more to their menu than you might expect. With a varied selection featuring American classics, hearty bar food, snacks, comforting favorites (think sandwiches, soups, salads, and local sodas), and a surprising range of vegetarian and vegan options, you and your friends are sure to find just the dish that will satisfy your cravings. 

Old Bakery Beer was erected in the historic Colonial Bakery building in 2015. Co-founders Lauren Pattan and Murray Rogalsky strove to preserve the integrity of this iconic building while keeping things modern. Their efforts are reflected in the rustic-yet-comfy interior design. Bright, newly painted walls stand alongside faded brick. Old black-and-white pictures are interspersed with verdant plant life and tasteful decorations. Concrete beams and metal pipes loom over eaters in a warmly lit dining area full of modern furniture.

The company is fully committed to sustainability, as demonstrated by its 5-star accreditation with the Green Dining Alliance. Numerous examples of the company’s passion for sustainability can be found here. Among them, I thought a neat example was that a local St. Louis furniture maker crafted their tables and bar using reclaimed wood and processes with low ecological impact. The impressive, long bar stands between guests and smiling staff who are eager to take orders. 

Wanting to try a smattering of the plant-based offerings, I started off with the Crispy Spring Rolls and Jerk Cauliflower Bites (both labeled as “Snacks” on the menu). For mains, I went with the Buffalo Chickpea Sandwich and Falafel Burger. These both came with sides, so I got the fries and baked beans (the beans aren’t vegan, which I later found out). 

Crispy Spring Rolls

The spring rolls were crispy upon arrival but like any fried food, they got soggy after their short stint in the to-go container. So eat these on-site! Stuffed to the brim with kimchi and rice noodles, and served with a Thai peanut sauce, the flavor was nothing short of delightful. I wish either the sauce or the kimchi had more of a spicy kick, but other than that I was very pleased with these. 

Jerk Cauliflower Bites

The hearty Jerk Cauliflower Bites had a nice, robust breading. (But something about the flavor of the breading seemed a bit bitter to me.) The pineapple-y dipping sauce was heavenly. Sweet and tangy – if they served it as a drink I would down it by the glassful!

Buffalo Chickpea Sandwich

The Buffalo Chickpea Sandwich, despite being very simple, had great flavor. I expected the “chickpea fritter” to be the same as the patty in the falafel burger, but it was less green and fried-looking, and more the shape of a burger patty. The four components – chickpea fritter, buffalo sauce, ranch dressing, and buns – work well together and make for a satisfying, humble sandwich. The online menu doesn’t provide the option to include additional toppings, which I think would help elevate the sandwich for more adventurous eaters. 

Well-seasoned, ultra-crisp exterior, and fluffy-tender interior describe the thick, steak-style fries. They are potato perfection and will be my go-to side order next time (and the next, and the next…). 

Falafel Burger

The Falafel Burger is exactly what the name suggests. It’s basically a large, crispy falafel patty with buns and fresh toppings. The included cucumber slices and chipotle tahini sauce add crunch and earthy depth to the experience. Unlike the Buffalo Chickpea Sandwich, you’re given the option to add several free additional toppings (lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion). Vegans and vegetarians beware: the baked beans side dish – while well-seasoned – has small pieces of bacon nestled within (this is mentioned when you order online, but not in the main menu). Plenty of other sides are vegan, including fries, chips, greens, and house salad.

Check out their menu here for lots of other vegan, vegetarian (labeled V+ and V, respectively) and omnivorous options. Head to the restaurant when your favorite special is being served, like Sunday ramen (vegan ramen is available), Thursday pizza (a fully vegan cheese pizza is an option), or discounted happy hour items Monday-Wednesday from 3-6pm. 

Whether you’re stopping in for a light snack or a sumptuous meal, the Old Bakery Beer Company is sure to meet and often exceed culinary expectations. With a unique ambiance to boot, the fun and inviting vintage-modern décor is great for social dining, so bring a friend (or three!). Order online ahead of time – or don’t, and simply enjoy the casual vibes while you wait and meet new people in this renowned institution of Illinois culture. 

What Does It Means To Eat Sustainably?

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | Feb 6, 2023

Cauliflower steak with roasted tempeh and baby corn

In an age where “sustainable” is a word used to describe an increasingly diverse group of foods, it can be hard for people to decide what to eat to get the best eco-bang for their buck. And with such an expansive culinary scene – where diners can devour a plant-based burger, slurp a post-workout cricket-protein shake, and enjoy a regenerative mycelium “steak” all in one day, yet still be told off by foodie friends for drinking that resource-intensive almond milk – one can hardly be blamed for wondering, “what the heck is a ‘sustainable’ food, anyway?” 

One of the points of confusion is the fact that “sustainability” is an unregulated and multi-disciplinary term. There’s no legal definition of sustainable food, but a working definition developed by the Alliance for Better Food and Farming describes it as food that is produced, processed, distributed and disposed of in ways that:

  • Contribute to thriving local economies and sustainable livelihoods, including in producer countries;
  • Protect the diversity of both plants and animals and the welfare of farmed and wild species;
  • Avoid damaging or wasting natural resources or contributing to climate change; and
  • Provide social benefits, such as good quality food, safe and healthy products, and educational opportunities.

Let’s break that down: an example of the first point could be coffee beans that are sourced from farms using fair labor practices. Peet’s Coffee, for example, is a “100% responsibly sourced” roaster and retailer after a years-long road to improve its sustainability metrics (which included more than 20,000 annual sustainability audits). It’s because of companies like this that farmers using honest labor practices are able to grow and boost their local economies by providing fair wages to workers.

An example of the second point might be buying seafood raised in closed-loop farms, whose populations are carefully monitored and maintained. For example, a Sacramento sturgeon farm simultaneously produces outstanding caviar and uses the waste to grow butter lettuce. In contrast, wild-caught bluefin tuna and other endangered species of fish are being brought to the edge of extinction through overfishing despite international regulations.

When we consider the “damaging or wasting [of] natural resources” (in this case the rainforest) it’s impossible to overlook the effects of palm oil plantations. Production of palm oil on drainage-based peat swamp in Southeast Asia accounts for between 0.44% and 0.74% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to one study. Choosing a “more sustainable” cooking oil isn’t a clear-cut decision because global demand for these oils is staggering. But data suggests that rapeseed oil (more widely known as canola oil) is a better option than most because it results in the least GHG emissions per liter

Finally, by purchasing from companies that prioritize social welfare and/or put profits towards charitable and educational causes, we contribute to sustainable communities by “voting” with our dollars. One such company is Dave’s Killer Bread, which created a Second Chance Project and claims a third of its workforce are ex-convicts. Similarly, Greyston Bakery – through its unique, no-resume-required Open Hiring policy – provides employment opportunities to those who have experienced barriers to employment. By purchasing organic produce (especially items from the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list), shoppers can reduce health hazards and support farming free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

Is it practical to only source foods that meet all four criteria of a sustainable food? Maybe not. Is it cheap to only eat organic, locally sourced foods from companies that pay fair wages? Probably not. But perhaps it isn’t too large of an ask for the average consumer to hit one criteria at a time. Small steps lead to big changes. Steps like incorporating a “meatless Monday” into your week, buying a Marine Stewardship Council-certified tilapia instead of the cheapest variety once in a while, or choosing free-range eggs rather than those produced in cage-ridden factory farms. Choices like these not only demonstrate to suppliers that we care about what we eat – they directly reduce environmental degradation and suffering on a global level. 

Pastina in Brodo with cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and basil

Keep it simple. Everyone could benefit from following the practical advice given by journalist and author Michael Pollen, who says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There are few “silver bullet” solutions in life, but incorporating more plants into your diet may be one of them. Animal agriculture is responsible for a huge portion of GHG emissions. A more plant-forward diet has been shown to improve health, sometimes curing chronic diseases like diabetes. And have you ever seen headlines whistleblowing the fact that billions of animals are kept in inhospitable conditions to sustain the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs? Eating more plants can fix that, too. Indeed, changing global eating habits can simultaneously right several wrongs, so if you can only focus on one thing, eat more plants!

Homegrown Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide

By Jolee Keplinger |September 21, 2022

As a recent graduate, I am always looking for ways to connect to the local food system in Raleigh, NC. I’ve visited various farmer’s markets, and have started growing my own food, aka, a tiny herb garden on my apartment balcony. I dream of having a house with a garden one day, but for now, I enjoy caring for a small collection of apartment-friendly herbs and plants. Growing herbs has been especially rewarding, since they have a variety of culinary uses, and nutritional benefits.

Recipe Inspiration: Homemade waffle with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and fresh basil

From a sustainability standpoint, growing your own herbs can help reduce plastic waste, since fresh herbs at the grocery store are typically packaged in plastic containers, shipped from many miles away. Even though it’s a small impact in the broader scheme of things, the act of growing edible plants feels meaningful, and it can lead one to feel inspired to take on new challenges, such as growing vegetables, or starting a community garden.

The planters pictured here are self watering, and a huge help during the hot summer months. I ordered these from Amazon.

I started my herb growing journey in 2021 with a basil plant I purchased from Trader Joe’s. Yes, I could have just planted seeds like a normal gardener, but I thought it would be nice to re-pot the plant in my herb planter and immediately have a thriving basil plant without needing to wait for the seeds to germinate. Shortly after my basil purchase, I found a set of four herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil, and mint) at Costco. I re-potted them in my herb planters, and had a nice collection of herbs to enjoy. The thyme didn’t survive, but the others did well. I especially loved having fresh rosemary to use for a roasted sweet potato recipe!

In 2022 I moved from New Hampshire down to North Carolina, and needed to leave my plants behind. As soon as I was settled in my new space, I started a new mini herb garden, and it has been successful since! This time, I started with basil, oregano, mint and thyme. The thyme didn’t survive (again!) so I just added more mint. The herbs LOVED the summer heat and humidity (me, not so much).

The highlight of my herb-growing journey happened when my basil plant exploded during the summer, and provided enough leaves to harvest for homemade pesto. It’s a strange feeling having to harvest so much of a big, beautiful plant, but I had to keep telling myself that it was actually beneficial for its future growth. I harvested the basil stems and got to work in the kitchen.

I pulled up a simple basil recipe online, but I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand. I decided to just go for it anyway, and substitute walnuts for the pine nuts that are traditionally used in pesto. I didn’t have parmesan cheese, used sharp white cheddar and hoped that the two ingredient substitutions wouldn’t throw off the flavor too much. I kept everything else in the recipe the same, and the pesto was delicious!

Here is the pesto recipe I referenced when making my own version. You will be surprised at how much basil is needed to make two packed cups! As mentioned in the recipe, you can substitute one cup of packed spinach if needed.

Making my first homegrown basil was the most satisfying experience. I really appreciated it, knowing that I would need to wait a period of time to have enough basil to harvest again. As I am writing this, it’s been about a month since the pesto harvest, and I am contemplating whether to do another before the weather cools down.

Based on my two short years of experience, I would definitely recommend taking on the challenge of homegrown herbs as a way to connect with your food. I think it’s the perfect way for recent graduates to enter the world of gardening, especially for those living in apartments with balconies. Also, if you are not a pet owner (like myself), caring for plants can help fill the need for wanting to care for something other than yourself.

Happy gardening!

Principia Campus’ West Quad 100 Year Old Apple Tree Orchard

Nadja’s Fall ’21 apple haul!

By Nadja Peschke |March 30, 2022 Principia Center for Sustainability Special Projects Officer

It came to my surprise my Sophomore year, how few students and professors knew about the West Quad apple orchard. Every time I walked from the concourse to my dorm or Voney studio, I stopped to marvel at the wealth of ripe apples suspended in the sunshine above my head. I would snag the apple picker from Howard House’s porch (thank you, Kemi!) and pick apples while other students receded back to their rooms for an afternoon nap or homework session. It felt like stealing gold.  

Jonafree Canopy Fall ’21
Senior, Sophie Hills holding our pickings!

The juicy weight of the fruit sagged the branches so low that my 5’ 3” frame could snag a snack and be on my way. It was my Eden when the Red Delicious apples shipped from the industrial orchards of Washington State to the Scramble Room just didn’t taste right. Did you know that “Red Delicious” is not a naturally derived apple variety? It was created in a lab to be a productive monocrop. Consequently, it’s pretty flavorless compared to our campus Jonafree apples.  

I made an effort to bring my friend circle into the bounty. We would pick a box full and make applesauce, or keep the apples in a cold spot in our rooms to enjoy for weeks on end. The taste was tart, sweet, the texture was crisp, the sound of a bite was snappy. I grew a habit of always having two in my tote bag, one for me and one to share. My little Johnny Appleseed act still wasn’t enough to get all students on board, some even seemed dubious that they were edible! This caused me to wonder how our society came to trust fruit in a basket more than fruit in the fresh air? I digress.  

Pruned Tree Blossoming in April ’22

Senior year, I once again looked forward to this early fall treat but was greeted with tired trees, yellowing leaves, and more rot than apple. How did this happen? According to pomologists, pom (fruit bearing) trees need to be trimmed and maintained. A lot of orchardists share a phrase that the trees’ branches should allow a cat to be tossed straight through the canopy without touching a branch!  

Reflecting on the scraggly, tangled limbs I immediately knew the year’s pickings had something to do with the maintenance of our beloved trees. The extra limbs were stealing energy from the possible production of fruits. These limbs start as vertical growing twigs called watershoots, or suckers, and if not groomed from the start they become mature branches that make a bushy canopy. Some of the trees on campus I even call willow apples because they sag so low with watershoots. 

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During February and March 2022 I led a pruning crew to help our apples thrive in 2023. Here are a few tips from Dr. Chrissy McAllister, bio professor, who met me to discuss pruning. It turns out that there are three stages to pruning a tree: Clean Up, Thinning Out, and Shaping; 

  1. Clean Up consists of noting dead vs dormant branches and twigs. To do this you very gently scrape the bark away and if it’s green it’s alive … and if it’s brittle and brown, likely that limb is dead. This might also be easy to tell by sight, in that many diseased or damaged limbs have visible decay or breakages. Branches damaged from weather, animal rubbing, or other influences should be assessed for pruning so the tree can heal.  
  2. To Thin Out the tree, check for the culprit: watersprouts. These are new growth that grows at a 90- degree angle out of a branch or by the base of a tree. In the trees on our Quad, watersprouts had grown for years so they were heavy, thick and piercing straight through the branches to the sky. To properly remove them, we had to carefully saw or clip them off flush to the host branch collar at a 10 or 2 o’ clock angle. This ensures a smooth surface for the tree to heal over. Remember, leave no stumps on the branches!  
  3. The Shaping portion is easier with younger trees, this allows the choice of how the tree will grow. An apple tree should have a broad canopy that reaches out more than up. Trimming the branches out of reach ensures more apples where we can pick and enjoy!  

At most, only about 20% of a tree should be pruned a season. Watch out not to cut branches with abundant spurs, these are the pointed buds that will blossom and become the fruit. But the more you remove distracting or unhealthy limbs the more you can direct a tree’s energy to be fruitful. Ultimately, you can’t hurt the tree by following these tips! This is a yearly maintenance for most fruit trees like pears, peaches, and plums. Always double check with a trusted source for your type of fruit tree but tending to them is responsible and ensures the longevity of your trees.  

watercolor inspired by the Jonafree Apple Trees on Campus, painted by Nadja Peschke Fall 2020

The orchard has blessed our Principia community for nearly 100 years, and by tenderly caring for it – and enjoying its bounty! – on an annual basis, this beautiful grove will continue to bless students with new skills and many tasty apples as our orchard grows. Next fall when you walk through the Quad, take a seat on the new benches we added in the quad to breath in the beauty of the orchard, birdsong and pick a few apples. If you’d like to get involved in orchard care, contact the college’s Center for Sustainability! 

Pruning Crew March 2022 !

All Photos Credited to Nadja Peschke.

An Eco-Conscious Guide for Holiday Dinners

By Jolee Keplinger |November 27, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

The holiday season is known to be stressful, making it easy for sustainability to be a second thought, but preparing holiday food is a tradition that isn’t going away. If you haven’t already, not is a wonderful time to incorporate some eco-friendly habits into your routine. This guide will explain a few ways you can postively impact the planet this holiday season.

Shop Local, Reduce Waste: When shopping for produce, I find it easiest to reduce packaging waste by visiting a local farm stand. (If you live near Elsah, IL, I highly recommend Three Rivers Community Farm.) Most of the produce is unpackaged, so customers either use the plastic bags provided or bring their own. I try to come prepared with reusable produce bags and shopping bags. Certain foods, such as carrot bunches and spinach, come prepackaged in plastic bags, so those are added to my plastic bag stash for the grocery store’s recycling collection.

If you want to see what markets are in your area, you can type your zip code into the USDA’s Local Food Directory. I tested it out, and I noticed some of the markets I visit did not show up. It’s still worth checking out if you are unfamiliar with your local market scene.

Of course, as the holidays approach, most farmer’s markets are ending their season. Farmer’s markets may not be an option this time of year, you can still step up your sustainability game.

Grocery Store Shopping: Most of us will probably need to shop for holiday dinner staples at the grocery store. Unfortunately can be difficult to avoid ingredients packed in single-use and non-recyclable packaging. Fortunately, some grocery stores, such as Trader Joe’s, are committed to reducing and removing the packaging. They replaced styrofoam meat and produce trays with biodegradable alternatives. They even replaced their clear plastic produce bags with a green compostable version (unfortunately they can only be composted industrially, not in your backyard). They’re far from perfect, but appear to be more ecologically conscious than the average store. You can research the sustainability commitments for your favorite grocery stores, and strive to shop at the one that clearly demonstrates a commitment to sustainable practices.

Minimizing Plastic Waste: Simply skip the plastic turkey bag. I’ve grown up with Thanksgiving turkey cooked in “the bag”. After seeing the family turkey being prepared this way, each year I thought I’d research some more eco-conscious alternatives.

  1. The brand If You Care makes compostable bags with FSC-certified paper. This may be one only parchment roasting bag on the market.
  2. This Martha Stewart recipe will explain how to make a delicious roasted turkey with just regular parchment paper. Fortunately, becoming more common to find compostable parchment paper. For example, I found a roll by Reynold’s at my local target.
  3. You can also learn to cook a turkey without a bag (click for Livestrong article).

Reducing Leftover Food Waste: Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner leftovers can get boring. It may be tempting to toss them after back to back leftover-filled lunches and dinners. (It’s also important to eat up your leftovers within a few days, to reduce the risk of harmful bacterial growth.) The easiest strategy is to simply freeze what you know you won’t eat within 3-4 days.

Be prepared with reusable freezer bags, brands such as Russbe and Stasher, so you will have an easier time fitting them into the freezer. Try to skip the single-use Ziploc bags, but if you do have them, you can hand wash, dry, and reuse them many times, but read this article to make sure this is done safely.

Purchasing Checklist:

  • Create a shopping list and plan to buy what you need. Estimate the number of dinner guests, and decide which recipes you will make, and how many servings.
  • Research farmer’s markets/farm stands in your area. It’s perfect for finding seasonal produce and even free-range meats.
  • Before leaving to shop, remember to bring your own reusable shopping bags. And don’t forget to clean the bags! If bags are cloth, they may be machine washable, and non-cloth bags with a smooth surface can be sprayed and wiped down. Mesh produce bags, such as Earthwise, are also machine washable. They are also great for many other uses, such as organizing small items in luggage.
  • Have a plan for leftover food storage. Purchase reusable food storage bags and storage containers if you can afford them. Opt for dishwasher-safe to save washing time. If you don’t own glass food storage containers, now is the perfect time to upgrade your Tupperware. Glass containers are more durable than plastic, they can withstand high heat, and they can also be used for serving. (This means fewer dishes to wash, yay!)
  • If you have friends or family that would be open to using the reusable products listed above, you may as well add them to your Christmas shopping list. This is a great way to spread the holiday spirit with a sustainable twist.

Happy holidays!

Sustainability Reporting in the Food Industry

By Jolee Keplinger |August 12, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

Food processing companies are central to the discussion of sustainable food production. The trend of environmental awareness, plus heightened consumer consciousness, has raised the expectations of many consumers. These days, consumers are wanting to purchase foods that are sustainably sourced and produced. Consumers are seeking openness, honesty, and transparency from food companies.

As a result, there has been dramatic growth in the number of food companies reporting on sustainability. This has led many companies to take time to communicate their sustainability philosophies, goals, and practices in a public manner. This has resulted in the publishing of Sustainability Reports (or Corporate Social Responsibility Reports).

On average, food companies have about 4 years of reporting experience.

Evidence for heightened consumer awareness:

In 2018, 59% of consumers surveyed said it was important that the foods they purchased were produced in a sustainable way (Food Technology Magazine).

In 2017, about 7 in 10 consumers reported that they wanted food companies’ sustainability practices to be more visible (The Hartman Group).

An In-Depth Example: Oatly

When attending the Culinary Institute of America’s virtual Menus of Change summit, I learned about an oat beverage (non-dairy “milk”) brand called Oatly. They were first company to put oat beverages on the market! Their mission is to offer nutrient-rich, oat-based products to the wold without building up a resource-intensive dairy infrastructure, and emitting excessive amounts of greenhouse gasses.

Oatly seemed to have a strong awareness and dedication to sustainability. During the session, the host mentioned that they are committed to tracking their efforts and have been publishing sustainability reports. I was curious to learn how this brand was addressing various aspects of sustainability in its operations. After a quick Google search, I was able to access Oatly’s 2018 Sustainability report.

First Impressions.

At first glance, the report was overwhelming! There were 89 pages filled with text and infographics. In terms of graphic design, it was not what I expected. I imagined the average sustainability report to look very scientific, bland, and not very visually appealing. I was not expecting to see an array of complementary colors, an unconventional text font, simple, yet effective graphics, and plenty of professional looking photographs. I could tell that Oatly really took the project seriously, and was catering to a target audience of millennial/Gen-Z open-minded consumers.

I appreciated the sense of humor that was integrated throughout. At the beginning of reading, I was immediately intrigued by the bold nature of the title page. which stated “Sustainability Report 2018: Slightly Worst Than Last Year!“. That made me want to continue reading. Why would a company be so straightforward about their not-so-great findings? I thought it was very transparent right off the bat, and couldn’t wait to learn what happened.

Oatly’s Sustainability Aspirations and Wins + The Triple Bottom Line


  • Oatly has a goal of equal distribution of women/men in leadership positions and an equal treatment policy. Currently, the board is 100% men, and 67% of men hold leadership positions with staff responsibility.
  • Fun fact: This company has three employees that are specifically focused on sustainable operations.


  • When choosing to purchase oat milk rather than cow’s milk, fewer resources are needed, and there is less of a contribution to climate change.
  • For example, in 2018, Oatly sold 71,482,745 liters of oat drink worldwide. If you assume that that number would have otherwise been consumed as cow’s milk, then 56,471 tons of greenhouse gasses were reduced! That is the equivalent of traveling around the world 11,778 times in a car!
  • Most of their packaging is paper-based, with the exception of plastic cups used for the Creamy Oat Fraiche, oat spreads, and Oatgurt.
  • Oatly ties its efforts to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


  • The global increase in plant-based eating has positively affected the company’s growth in all of its markets. This indicates that the interest (and will) to opt for plant-based food is increasing.
  • Sustainable growth is a topic that of much debate. Oatly acknowledges the general issue of consumer overconsumption, but highlights the significance of large companies creating positive change. Since Oatly is a larger company, there’s great potential for accomplishing and influencing positive change.

Areas for improvement

  • The rapid increase in staff make the establishment of a unified sustainability culture a challenge.
  • There has been increased product travel due to globalization.
  • In 2016 Oatly set a goal to reduce its GHG emissions by 25% by 2020. From 2015-2017, emissions decreased, but they increased in 2018 due to an unexpected growth spurt for plant-based/vegan food products.
  • The long-term goal is to fully produce products using renewable energy and reduce energy consumption. Currently, 87% of their energy use is renewable. Co-packing facilities outside of their home base of Sweden are powered by nonrenewable energy.
What if the fields of oats were home to wind turbines!

Find Oatly! Near You

  • If you are living on Principia College’s campus, you can find the products at the Alton, IL Target. According to the product locator, currently this location carries Oat Frozen Dessert, four types of oatmilk.
  • The St. Louis area has many stores that carry Oatly, including Dierbergs, Fresh Thyme, and Target, Whole Foods and even a few coffee shops.
  • Before venturing out, I recommend checking the Oatfinder for an updated list of stores near you.

How to Use Oat “Milk”

Oat “milk” is a 1:1 substitute for dairy milk. If you’re interested in venturing into the world of plant-based milks, this variety is an excellent way to start! It’s light, airy, and the texture has been compared to skim milk. It’s a great option for individuals with food allergies or intolerance because it’s free of lactose, nuts, soy, and gluten (if certified). This is highly beneficial for those who are responsible for providing allergen-free food for many people. It’s great for chefs and restaurants that want to offer dairy-free alternative foods and beverages.

Common Uses:

  • Lattes and cappuccinos
  • Cereal
  • Baked goods
  • Smoothies
  • Drinking alone