20 Percent of the Top Independent Restaurants in the US Don’t Serve Any Meat: Report

Americans have a well-documented love affair with dining out, averaging three restaurant visits per month. While fast food remains a staple, with the United States leading global consumption, more than half of the nation’s eateries are independent, often family-run, establishments that offer unique culinary experiences alongside a chance to support local businesses during economic challenges.

In fact, since the COVID-19 pandemic, 65 percent of consumers are making a conscious effort to visit indie restaurants. Which ones are they loving most? A report compiled by OnDeck, a small business funding platform, reveals just that and, it turns out, diners are loving independent vegan restaurants these days. 

Finding the best indie restaurants 

To ascertain the leaders in the independent dining sector, OnDeck evaluated Yelp reviews and ratings for 149,099 restaurants situated in the most populated cities across every state. It filtered out only restaurants with four-star ratings or higher with at least 100 reviews. 

This resulted in 5,113 restaurants, which OnDeck analyzed against each other within their cuisine categories. 

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The analysis spanned a variety of cuisine types, including pizza, vegan, burgers, breakfast, and international cuisine, with restaurants ranked based on their average customer ratings and the total number of reviews. 

This method enabled a precise identification of the most celebrated independent dining experiences, as validated by consumer feedback.

The results? Among the top 10 independent restaurants in the country, three establishments share the title of the highest-rated, with an average rating of five out of five—two of these were vegan and in Los Angeles. 

Both Hey, Sunshine Kitchen and Beewali’s Vegan AF took top honors, alongside non-vegan restaurant Destination Taiwan in Cheyenne, WY, all with a perfect score of five stars. 

“More and more Americans have been trying plant-based foods in recent years, compelled by concerns for the environment, animal welfare and their own health (among other reasons),” the report states. 

“Popular chain restaurants across the US are adding plant-based items to their menus in response, but for an authentic dining experience free of animal products, why not head to an indie vegan restaurant?” the report asks. 

The OnDeck report also analyzed the best indie restaurants by state, where Hey, Sunshine Kitchen was ranked the top in California. 

When it comes to the top independent restaurants for vegan options, Hey, Sunshine Kitchen unsurprisingly takes the top spot alongside Beewali’s Vegan AF (famed for its plant-based kabobs and other Mediterranean fare) with vegetarian eatery Thanh Tinh Chay in San Diego coming in third. 

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Others in this category were Casa de Falafel in Phoenix, AZ; The Mediterranean Chickpea in Tampa, FL; Urban Fresh in Tucson, AZ; Boon Cafe in Chicago, IL; Pure Kitchen Organic Vegan in Tampa, FL; Bowl Mami in Dallas, TX; and Pure Soul in Durham, NC. 

Hey, Sunshine Kitchen: a family-owned vegan hotspot

What does it take to be the top independent restaurant in the country? It requires a blend of culinary innovation, unwavering dedication, and a deep commitment to both the community and the environment—elements that Hey, Sunshine Kitchen exemplifies.

Founded by LA’s renowned “Spork Sisters,” Heather Golden Ray and Jenny Engel, Hey, Sunshine Kitchen opened last year. This launch marked a significant milestone in Ray and Engel’s journey, which began more than 16 years ago with the inception of their cooking school, Spork Foods.

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Hey, Sunshine Kitchen’s menu is driven by the Spork Sisters’ deep knowledge of plant-based cooking and features a selection of hearty bowls; tacos (in Baja fish, carnitas, and seasoned beef varieties); crispy and spicy chicken sandwiches; and sides such as mac and cheese, potato salad, and coleslaw. 

There’s also a menu for kids and dessert includes chocolate chip cookies topped with rainbow sprinkles and cakes stamped with a powdered sugar “S” logo. 

“We wanted to create a space where everyone, no matter their dietary preference, could enjoy flavorsome, innovative, and hearty plant-based meals,” Ray previously told VegNews.

The idea for Hey, Sunshine Kitchen initially came to the sisters during a trade show in Dallas, TX and has evolved into what is now the top independent restaurant in the country. 

“We played with so many iterations of the menu for years,” Ray said. “We had a plant-based barbecue idea at first, but ultimately landed on what Hey, Sunshine Kitchen is today.”

Beyond its menu offerings, Hey, Sunshine Kitchen is also dedicated to environmental sustainability. Partnering with Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the restaurant showcases pollinator-friendly plants on its patio and offers complimentary plants with every entrée purchased on Mondays. 

“At Hey, Sunshine Kitchen, we are also committed to leaving the earth in a better place for our children,” Ray said.

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Despite their busy schedules, Ray and Engel remain actively involved in the operations of Hey, Sunshine Kitchen, ensuring that the restaurant stays true to its core values while continuing to evolve and grow. 

How to build a successful independent restaurant

The analysis by OnDek also sheds light on the foundational elements that contribute to the success and popularity of these top-rated establishments. What are they? A nuanced understanding of the target market, the delivery of unique and memorable dining experiences, and the cultivation of positive customer interactions emerge as critical success factors. 

The report also underscores the importance of innovation, sustainability, and a deep connection with the dining community as hallmarks of the most successful vegan and independent restaurants.

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OnDeck’s report corroborates a trend that Yelp has been reporting about its own platform for several years, including in 2023 when vegan restaurants took top honors in several categories of the platform’s Top 100 Restaurants list. 

Vegan soul food eatery Pure Soul landed at the top of both lists: ranked by OnDeck as the best indie restaurant in North Carolina and by Yelp as the best plant-based soul food in the Carolinas region.

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