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Ever wonder where the Flying Falafel gets its savory faux chicken? Or where The Butcher’s Son gets its succulent mock shrimp? What about Aburaya’s vegan drumsticks? The secret’s out: They all come 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 synonymous with plant-based dining, and back when “food tech” referred to newfangled cash registers, not venture capital-backed protein efforts.
Layona Lee, then an East Bay resident, founded the business in 1995, partnering with multiple Taiwanese manufacturers to make Layonna-branded foods. The company was intended to be eponymous, says Samual Wong, who’s owned the shop since 2015.
“When she filed a business license, she by accident put in two Ns,” Wong said, so Layona the person owned Layonna the market, working with a number of vendors to make Layonna-branded foods. During the 20 years she owned the company, she never bothered to change the name.
Peter Fikaris, who owns Berkeley vegan bakery and deli The Butcher’s Son with his sister, Christina Stobing, said his family has used Layonna’s products across two generations.
“We owned a vegan restaurant back in the ’90s in Berkeley; our father opened it and we worked there as teenagers,” Fikaris said. “It was called Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner. We didn’t make a lot of our meat substitutes in-house like we do now, so we used a lot of Layonna’s meat substitutes on our menu,” he said.
Back then, Layonna was “pretty much a one stop shop for everything and anything 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-like dishes for non-meat eaters were less ubiquitous than they are now. Layonna filled that void.
“I turned to meat substitutes because I missed eating their animal-based counterparts,” Fikaris said. “I liked eating meat.”
However, “I didn’t like the idea of eating animals,” Fikaris said. “It bothered me quite 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 Thai spot Farmhouse Kitchen and SF’s Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya and its Berkeley counterpart, Tane Vegan Izakaya. You’ll also find Layonna’s meat substitutes at a number of area food trucks, Asian temples and at SF’s Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl.
When you visit, you can see why: The array of foods available through Layonna is really mind-blowing, including everything from vegan pepper steak to vegan sea cucumber (despite sharing its name with a plant, the sea cucumbers you’d find in the ocean are actually animals). There are frozen faux meats, dried snacks and jerky, bulk soy proteins and a panoply of gluten-free nuggets and cuts.
Layonna’s most popular items are its gluten-free vegan fried chicken, and its gluten-free vegan chicken legs, Wong said. The most recent addition to their list of offerings is a vegan version of that Hawiian-cooking standby, Spam. “It is really good,” Wong said. “Close to 99% real Spam.”
Wong, who’s originally from Hong Kong, explained his entry into the world of vegan meat alternatives as an unexpected turn in his life.
“I’m just an ordinary Asian guy, graduated from university, got a college degree, and then got an office job,” Wong said. “In 2015, through a coincidence, I met Layona.” Eventually, he expressed interest in buying the business, working under her for a spell before taking the operation over.
“Layona was trying to retire and I worked with her for three months,” Wong said, then the business was his. But Layonna hasn’t seen the last of Layona, even now, Wong said.
Though Lee herself moved to Taiwan post-retirement, she’s still involved, since most of Layonna’s products are still made there. “Layona has become our quality control,” Wong said. “She has a very close relationship with our manufacturer and makes sure everything is tested.”
That attention to detail is growing more and more important as well-funded competitors enter Layonna’s mock meat ring. But according to folks like The Butcher’s Son’s Fikaris, demand is rising too.
People are turning to meat substitutes “for their health, for the planet, for the animals,” Fikaris said. But also, “it is because they still love those foods, and are looking for an option more suited to their current preference.”