At the time this blog posts, Three Carrots will still occupy about 200 square feet of space inside Indianapolis’s City Market. That’s all about to change come summer, but for now, the vegan restaurant maintains a hair more space than your average food truck. From inside his culinary cubicle, owner and chef Ian Phillips has slowly converted the carnivorous Circle City from steak and fries to seitan and roasted sweet potatoes.
No one is more surprised by this than Ian Phillips.
“Obviously, doing vegan and vegetarian stuff has always been an uphill battle,” he says about Indy’s dining scene. The culture of eating meat is deeply ingrained in Midwestern roots, as anyone who has ever had a hot dog sliced into their weeknight casserole can tell you — some people would rather eat any meat than none at all. In the 90s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant able to survive without meat in just about every dish, save for a few ethnic joints propped up by immigrant populations starved of any other options. Even now, after winning multiple awards from various publications, Phillips is quick to shrug off the suggestion that the success of the restaurant was born of his own kitchen savvy.
“I don’t think I had a real traditional culinary trajectory. I didn’t go to culinary school. I worked in restaurants when I was in college, but I took 7 years off to do other stuff. But to come back and to be in conversations with chefs and these other restaurants that I have deep admiration for, I can’t really… I mean, I think our food’s really good!” He laughs, “But I also have to pinch myself sometimes. This whole process has been unbelievable.” The chef/owner wasn’t afraid of being embraced in the Midwest, but in a city where there seemed to be a city-specific resistance to dining meatless.
“We’re not doing anything crazy or experimental. You go to Columbus or Cincinnati and they have tons of vegetarian restaurants. Even in Bloomington, there’s tons of vegetarian restaurants.” Phillips says it’s an offshoot of the “vicious cycle” of restaurant funding: when one brick-and-mortar restaurant fails, it poisons the investment pool for anyone that wants to do something similar. “People invest in one here and it doesn’t succeed, and then no one wants to invest in another full-scale vegetarian restaurant. It’s great to be able to prove that people want this, and to prove that we can do it.”
Phillips didn’t want to rely on anyone else’s money, so he recycled the business model of his punk band days.
“Part of it was that we took whatever opportunity was available and that was the opportunity that presented itself. And the other thing was that I played in punk bands for 20 years, and I feel that the way I’ve run the business is the same way I ran the bands’ finances. You do a little bit of work, and you sell some stuff, and everything goes back into the business or the band.”
The opportunity to go full time came in the form of a tiny City Market stall where he was limited by space and equipment. Nonetheless, he built up a strong foundation for the restaurant by turning out wholesale quantities of seitan and selling it to local restaurants. When the time is right, Phillips will look into packaging the seitan for retail in groceries.
“I think when you make a really good product and people like it, you should make it as easy for people to get it as you can, right?” he laughed. “But I didn’t go to business school either.”
Again and again, Phillips disqualifies himself as an authority on good vegan food, even though it belies the huge range of well-executed flavors and ethnic cuisines he touches on with his menu. I’d go so far as to say that “vegan restaurant” is an inaccurate descriptor of the place. There are lots of Asian and Middle Eastern flavors represented, a great Greek gyro, plus some good ol’ American breakfast foods and buffalo sauce-coated proteins.
The unlikely restaurateur started his own vegan changeover more than 20 years ago, when eating vegan was a mess of “nasty canned proteins” that Phillips ate “because that’s what was available.” Anyone who remembers the plastic texture of “melted” vegan cheese from the 90s can attest to this sordid history. The dismal quality of Western-style vegan food put him on a mission to discover cultures that were doing meatless dining and doing it well. He discovered a love of spicy food, layered aromatics and lots of bright citrus and vinegar. Phillips found himself bouncing around Asian cultures to find the best vegan dining, eventually incorporating a global perspective into his own menu.
Beyond flavors, the vegan revolution has taken hold in a variety of communities: punk straight-edgers, granola moms, animal and environmental activists, and regular people trying to save their hearts and some money. Phillips says he’s a blend of all of those motivations, but he’s not leading any kind of mission of conversion. He’s leaving the patronage up to the same bottom line as every other restaurant in town, meatless or not: either the food is good or it isn’t.
Spoiler alert: it is. It’s so good, in fact, that the humble shop has outgrown its stall in City Market in 18 months flat. He makes hundreds of pounds of seitan at a time for distribution and he’s slammed with daily food orders. Sometime in the late summer, the restaurant will take up new residence in the building at 902 Virginia Ave, making room for about 50 diners and a whole lot more equipment on the backend. Phillips says they’ll be able to do a lot more there, especially in the realm of hot food, so keep your eyes peeled for an expanded menu with more non-liquor booze options, juices and smoothies and a coffee program. It’s happening not because Phillips dreamed it into existence, but because the modest market space can no longer contain the needs of his growing customer base. It’s a strangely nice change, he said, to go from having panic attacks about surviving to having panic attacks about being able to meet demand with only 24 hours in every day.
“I never imagined that a vegan restaurant would be a feasible thing. It was ’99 or 2000 when I was first thinking about it, and I thought, ‘That would be fun but I could never make a living off of it.’ And now it’s the thing we are doing for a living, and it’s getting some notoriety. People seem to be enjoying it, and that’s awesome. It’s crazy to step back sometimes and get that perspective on it.”