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'Oh, my cod!' Cape's inaugural Vegan Street Food Fest encourages thousands to dine differently

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Tara Calligan
Oh My Cod Vegan Seafood is inspired by New England flavors. The food truck specializes in banana blossom fish and chips and serves up "lobster" mac n' cheese.

An inaugural food festival had curious eaters saying, “I can’t believe it’s not cod,” and learning the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle during Cape Coral’s first-ever Vegan Street Food Fest on Sunday, March 12.

Plate after plate of what appears to be perfectly fried pieces of cod atop a bed of hot French fries pass by as crowds line up at one food truck. But looks can be deceiving, as everything on this plate is made with nothing but plants.

Cape Coral Vegan Street Food Fest 2023

Katie Dammenger has been living in Cape Coral for the last seven years and isn’t far from SE 14th Place where thousands came to experience culinary dishes celebrating all things vegan and plant-based.

She has just ordered from the food truck “Oh My Cod” which holds the title of Florida’s first all vegan seafood shack, specializing in banana blossom fish and chips.

“As someone who doesn't eat vegan all the time, I appreciate an alternative," said Dammenger. "There's nothing that compares to a group or from the Gulf, for sure. But I really love that Cape Coral and Southwest Florida is leaning into a plant-based movement and that they're adapting to so many different things on menus.”

From Brazilian, Indian and Mexican cuisines, to fresh juices, smoothies and boba, and yes, even seafood, vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike discovered new ways to enjoy veggies as delicious meat alternatives at Cape Coral’s first Vegan Street Food Fest.

Hosted by Lifestyle Solutions Healthy Planet, Inc., the festival was designed to carry out the nonprofit’s mission to educate people about the benefits of living a plant-based lifestyle and showcase vegan cuisine.

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Tara Calligan
Katie Dammenger, Cape Coral, ordered from the food truck Oh My Cod. She's holding a plate of buffalo "shrimp" that she says tastes surprisingly close to the real thing. Oh My Cod holds the title of Florida’s first all-vegan seafood shack, specializing in banana blossom fish and chips.

Lifestyle Solutions Healthy Planet board member Marlies Laaper helped organize Vegan Street Fest. Her Cape Coral restaurant Café YOU is also one of the event sponsors.

“A lot of people think, 'oh, vegan food, I have to eat boring salads.' And it's not like that at all,” said Laaper.

Café YOU opened seven years ago to emulate spots Laaper loved while living in Australia, focusing on delicious coffee and scratch-made, health-conscious bites. She says Vegan Fest can show how versatile vegan food can be.

“It's all about education and showing people how amazing the food can be," said Laaper. "And we've got cooking demos going in the back corner there. So showing people the different kinds of food and how simple it is to make.”

Cape Coral Vegan Fest 2023 (2).jpg
Tara Calligan
Oh My Cod Vegan Seafood is inspired by New England flavors. The food truck specializes in banana blossom fish and chips and serves up "lobster" mac n' cheese.

Menus with plant-based and vegan options are sprouting up in almost half of restaurants across the U.S., according to recent reports by Bloomberg.com. And veganism has been steadily on the rise over the last decade. This growing interest has local restaurants concocting new recipes to meet the growing demand in meatless options.

“We always have vegan and gluten free options because nowadays; you just have to,” said Retta Crank.

Retta and Josh Crank own and operate Tia’s Kitchen, a brand-new Mexican food truck that started rolling only three months ago. The concept started during the pandemic but became a reality after Retta’s business of 23 years, Sanibel Braids and Hair Wraps, was destroyed by Hurricane Ian.

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Tara Calligan
Tia's Kitchen vegan Mexican Street Corn.

Their long-time friend Perla Martin is head chef, and Josh says her Guadalajara roots heavily influence the menu.

“Her culinary training as well as her heritage shines through and all the dishes that we put out whether it is for an event like this, with the vegan food or traditional style, Mexican and non-traditional Mexican food,” said Josh.

Tia’s Kitchen served up dishes like street corn, and a veggie tostadas smothered in black beans, onions, mushrooms, pepper, onions and vegan cheese topped with grilled pineapple. Josh explains that having gluten-free and vegan menu options expands their clientele and will keep Tia’s Kitchen relevant.

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Tara Calligan
Retta and Josh Crank opened Tia's Kitchen after Hurricane Ian destroyed Retta's business on Sanibel. Retta says that she has always dreamed of owning a restaurant, and her friends of 15 years, Perla Martin, was her obvious choice for head chef. "You can teach technique, but you can't teach passion, flavor and just loving your job," said Crank. "And that screams through her food." From top left to bottom right: Perla Martin, Cole Fernandez, Retta Crank, Josh Crank.

“Vegan food is the future honestly, because of the plant based diets that everybody is gearing towards," said Josh. "And I think, you know, we want to get in there and be right with everybody."

Event organizers say the successful turnout will bring another Vegan Street Food Fest to Cape Coral in the very near future.

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