27-year-old Oakland Market behind East Bay restaurants’ vegan meat

A gluten-free fried chicken dish from Layonna, one of the Oakland company’s bestsellers. 1 credit

Layonna Diet Vegetarian Market
443 8th St. (near Broadway), Oakland
Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., delivery is made via DoorDash

Have you ever wondered where the Flying Falafel gets its tasty fake chicken from? Or where The Butcher’s Son gets their succulent faux shrimp? And Aburaya’s vegan drumsticks? The secret is out: They’re all from Oakland’s Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market, which has been providing meatless options for restaurants and home cooks since long before words like “beyond” and “impossible” were around. synonymous with plant-based meals, and back when “food tech” referred to state-of-the-art cash registers, not venture capital-backed protein efforts.

Layona Lee, then a resident of East Bay, founded the company in 1995, partnering with several Taiwanese manufacturers to make Layonna-branded foods. The business was to be self-titled, says Samual Wong, who has owned the store since 2015.

“When she filed a business license, she accidentally put in two Ns,” Wong said, so Layona, the person who owns Layonna Market, worked with a number of vendors to make Layonna-branded foods. In the 20 years she owned the business, she never bothered to change the name.

Peter Fikaris, owner of Berkeley vegan bakery and deli The Butcher’s Son with his sister, Christina Stobing, said his family has used Layonna’s products for two generations.

“We owned a vegan restaurant in the 90s in Berkeley; our father opened it and we worked on it as teenagers,” Fikaris said. “It was called Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner. We didn’t make a lot of our meat alternatives in-house like we do now, so we used a lot of Layonna’s meat alternatives on our menu,” he said.

Layonna’s newest product is a vegan spam substitute. Credit: Layonna/Facebook

At the time, Layonna was “pretty much a one-stop shop for anything and everything in the world of vegan meats.”

While vegetarian and vegan restaurants were already popular in Berkeley in the 1990s, back then restaurants that offered meat dishes for non-meat eaters were less ubiquitous than they are today. Layonna filled that void.

“I turned to meat substitutes because I missed eating their animal counterparts,” Fikaris said. “I liked to eat meat.”

However, “I didn’t like the idea of ​​eating animals,” Fikaris said. “It bothered me a lot.”

Decades later, Layonna supplies a slew of East Bay restaurants like the aforementioned Butcher’s Son and Flying Falafel, as well as Jack London Square’s Thai spot Farmhouse Kitchen and SF’s Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya and its counterpart in Berkeley, Tane Vegan Izakaya. You’ll also find Layonna’s meat alternatives at a number of area food trucks, Asian temples, and SF’s Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl.

When you visit, you’ll see why: the range of foods available through Layonna is truly breathtaking, including everything from vegan peppercorn steak to vegan sea cucumber (although it shares its name with a plant, sea cucumbers). sea ​​that you will find in the ocean are actually animals). There are fake frozen meats, jerky and jerky snacks, bulk soy protein, and an array of gluten-free nuggets and cuts.

Layonna’s most popular items are her gluten-free vegan fried chicken and her gluten-free vegan chicken thighs, Wong said. The newest addition to their list of offerings is a vegan version of that Hawaiian wait, Spam. “It’s really good,” Wong said. “Nearly 99% real spam.”

Layonna’s Vegan Abalone is made with konjac powder, tapioca starch, sugar and sea salt. 1 credit

Wong, originally from Hong Kong, explained his entry into the world of vegan meat alternatives as an unexpected turning point in his life.

“I’m just a regular Asian, college graduate, college graduate, then hired into an office,” Wong said. “In 2015, by coincidence, I met Layona.” Eventually he expressed interest in buying the company, working under him for a time before taking over the operation.

“Layona was trying to retire, and I worked with her for three months,” Wong said, and then the business was hers. But Layonna hasn’t seen the last of Layona even now, Wong said.

Although Lee herself moved to Taiwan after her retirement, she is still involved, as most of Layonna’s products are still made there. “Layona became our quality control,” Wong said. “She has a very close relationship with our manufacturer and makes sure everything is tested.”

This attention to detail becomes increasingly important as more well-funded competitors enter Layonna’s fake meat ring. But according to people like Fikaris of The Butcher’s Son, demand is also growing.

People are turning to meat alternatives “for their health, for the planet, for the animals,” Fikaris said. But also, “it’s because they still love those foods and are looking for an option that better suits their current preferences.”