Masala gives up its vegetarian tag, adds meat to menu


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For two decades, Masala, 9 S. Dubuque St., was known in Iowa City as the vegetarian restaurant that served Indian cuisine.

That changed this fall when owner Mani Ram decided to include meat and meat products in the restaurant’s menu to avoid being shut down.

“We never even thought about including meat in our menu,” Ram said, referring to the year 2006 when Masala was named “Best Vegetarian” restaurant in the area by Iowa Source.

Following an increase in competition from other meat-inclusive Indian restaurants in the area, and the economic slowdown, Masala’s financial charts started to look grim.

“I had only two options,” Ram said. “Either include meat or pack up and leave.”

While it seems pretty clear that people in Iowa City prefer Chicken Tikka Masala over Tofu Tikka Masala, for a former Farm Sanctuary activist, Elizabeth Cummings — who has been vegan for about 20 years — said things have gotten frustrating for vegans in Iowa City.

“When you travel around the country now, finding vegan options is very easy,” she said. “On the flipside, here in Iowa City I feel like our options have decreased in the last few years.”

She said it was unfortunate that Iowa City lost two vegetarian/vegan restaurants this year — Masala and the Red Avocado.

In April however, a new restaurant called Trumpet Blossom appeared on 312 E. Prentiss St. to answer the demands of Iowa City vegans such as Cummings.

“It seemed to me like just the thing to do,” said Katy Meyers, the owner of Trumpet Blossom Café and a former co-owner of the Red Avocado. “Knowing I had very good support from our former customers, I thought if we had another vegan restaurant it would also do well.”

Meyers said her restaurant caters to 80 to 100 people on an average day, but she expects foot traffic to increase as her business moves into its second quarter and they start to target catering to events.
Masala, on the other hand, has seen a daily increase of about 30 customers, as the meat eaters join the party.

“You see that woman sitting with three other people,” Ram said pointing towards a group of customers at his restaurant. “She is one of our vegetarian regulars, but she used to come here alone. Now everyone is happy.”

Ram said about 5 percent of his regulars, who had previously asked him to continue with an exclusively vegetarian/vegan menu, have stopped coming to the restaurant.

Both Ram and Meyers acknowledged the fact the people from all over Iowa showed up at their restaurants because they served a niche market that didn’t have too many options.

A study conducted by Vegetarian Times in 2008 showed only 7.5 millions Americans identify as vegetarians or vegans.

But, University of Iowa senior, Elise Goodmann, said about half the people she knows in Iowa City are vegan.

“This might not be the same for everyone else, but I felt my senses kind of opened up,” Goodmann said, adding she turned vegetarian and adopted a vegan lifestyle two years ago. “I could smell better, taste better and even my allergies went away. It just felt like I had found something for me.”

She added being a vegan helps her meet new people as many are curious about the dietary faith.

Meyers said she is confident about the vegan market in Iowa City, which according to her, is better than most cities in Iowa. She added that about a third of her customers are strictly vegan/vegetarian.

“I feel lucky to have the Iowa City demographic. I probably wouldn’t feel as confident trying to open a similar place somewhere else,” she said.

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