Opinion: Heirloom’s downfall had nothing to do with “Deborah”

I have always said this about vegans and vegetarians: Build it, and they will come. But so will others if the food is good.

When Heirloom Vegetarian first opened in 2012, its draw was that it was different and beautiful, a true West Coast joint that was not only aspirational but also seemed achievable. Eclectic, antique finishes balanced the high ceilings, tall windows, and airy decor. Lead windowpanes were repurposed as bar cabinet doors and extra-large vintage fruit posters graced their giant walls. Every time I was there, I convinced myself I would use its design as the blueprint for my someday home.

The food wasn’t just good; it was great. It was fresh, bountiful, and satisfying, leaving you feeling full and energized. You dipped in for quick bites at lunch but also celebrated milestones there, from birthdays to graduations. Groups gathered around shared plates and nursed craft cocktails, adding to the noise of the already bustling atmosphere.

Out of all their offerings, it was their kale Caesar that hooked me. It was made up of heaps of kale leaves massaged with a punchy dressing, drowned with crispy fried capers and smoky beet chips, and crowned with sweet cornbread croutons. It was a literal avalanche of flavour and textures that you attempted to mow your way through. Nothing about this salad was spare. Nothing about this salad was just a salad. It was a meal that made me beeline to Heirloom every time I flew into town.

Toronto has its own versions of Heirloom; one chain is called Fresh, and the other is Planta. Each has multiple locations dotted all over the city. Lush velvet chairs, opulent light fixtures, and accent tilework adorn both. They’re booming at all hours, too, not because the city is full of vegetarians but because the food is consistent and crave-able. Everyone — from Bay Street financiers to post-yoga gym bunnies — dines there. It’s for everyone, just like Heirloom was.

A few years ago, I again wandered over to Heirloom after being away for a few months and noticed there had been a shift. The food didn’t have the same bite it once did. Being a trained cook, I knew that this wasn’t a one-off. Instead, I could tell that the ingredients were different and that the core recipes had changed. Visit after visit, I left a little more deflated than the time before, noting that the addictive elements were gone. The crowds were thinning too. The service was slower and I could tell at times the staff were struggling. I checked online and saw that reviews were checkered as well. This past December, my friend informed me that Heirloom had added meat to their menu. I wondered how that move could unmute the missing flavour and whatever else was going on there.

I had heard rumblings about the toxicity at Heirloom for a while. This was solidified when I read about how, in September 2023, a Black teenage girl was awarded damages by Heirloom and a former manager to the tune of $27,000 for discrimination. The teen referred to the environment as “poison.”

The owner of Heirloom, Gus Greer, equated running a vegan restaurant to that of one for only redheads, stating that it was this “exclusiveness” that put them out of business — after twelve years? The dig about redheads is rich coming from someone who owns an Irish pub. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

But let’s get real: Heirloom was never “vegan.” It was ovo-lactarian, to be exact, and offered cheese add-ons at all times and eggs during its brunch. Blaming “vegan” exclusivity and then thinking you could save a business by suddenly having a beef burger on the menu — when places like Earls and Cactus Club were just down the street — was a dumb idea to begin with. Which is why it didn’t work.

The restaurant started to fail because corners were being cut, and we could all feel it. In the end, Deborah did her duty. As a paying customer, who, like me, had most likely paid to dine at Heirloom countless times over the last twelve years, she is entitled to her opinion and entitled to also make it public, because that’s part of the deal. That’s the show you bought tickets to. If you don’t want to serve the public, who have various opinions and personalities, different tastes and values, then don’t. Start a members-only club with Gus-like dudes who think, talk, and act like you. People who you can pal around with while blaming women who have expressed opinions (gasp!) about a restaurant they used to love.

Restaurant review platforms exist not only so customers can express themselves in the aftermath of their visit but also as an information tool for future customers and the restaurants themselves. Even the best restaurants have a negative review or two. The good ones take the feedback. The bad ones tell customers to violate animals or compare them to war criminals.

The truth is as clear as day: your business was plummeting faster than a skydiver without a parachute. It was the end, and you needed a punching bag. Thank you for that, though. Because we now know that Heirloom, a place where so many of us found solace and connection, never aligned with our values, regardless of the food they were serving.

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