James Danaskos used to eat six eggs a day and his first job was at KFC.
So perhaps you wouldn’t expect him to open Sydney’s first vegan deli, Shift Eatery in Surry Hills.
An obvious inspiration was his decision, three years ago, to stop consuming animal products. “I started looking into my health,” he says. His diet wasn’t exactly lean: besides smashing through lots of eggs daily, he was also eating steak and chicken for back-up and his cholesterol readings weren’t the kind a doctor would enthusiastically approve of.
After some research, Danaskos realised he “could do a lot better, without doing harm to others”.
So he switched to a vegan diet and his cholesterol dropped significantly – and rapidly.
“The doctor says, ‘what are you doing? Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!’”
This GP-approved move led to his idea for Shift Eatery. After stints at coffee roasters (Allpress, Toby’s Estate) and running a sandwich bar in the Sydney CBD, Danaskos wanted to start an accessible vegan café.
He knew nailing the coffee was key and, after a lot of vetting, chose Marvell St Coffee Roasters in Byron Bay. It was a “nice coincidence” to discover that its owner, Nicolas Kypreos, was also a vegan with a Greek background.
As a new café, Shift Eatery has attracted plenty of curious coffee-seeking office workers. “Five per cent of dairy drinkers walk out, which I totally understand, because we’re trying to break a lot of traditions and routines.”
Others are happy to try soy, macadamia or almond milk – even his dad and “he’s the furthest thing from a vegan”.
With Shift Eatery, Danaskos didn’t want people to assume he was just offering salads with a sermon. “Going totally healthy is great, and I’m all for it, but … the food needs to be tasty and it needs to be something you can’t get at home. It needs to be awesome to showcase veganism, so people can understand that it’s easy to make the shift.”
So his vegan deli keeps things casual and accessible with a menu headlined by hefty sandwiches and toasties. The signature sambo is the Reuben - called ‘Reuben’s Brother, Steve’ - featuring a meat-free ‘corned beef’ that chef Juan Carlos Miranda (The Plant Gallery) makes in-house, using a mix of gluten, beans and plenty of flavour boosts: tamari, nutritional yeast and lots of spices. It’s served on rye with sauerkraut, pickles and a house-made Reuben sauce. Danaskos warns that it’s truly filling. “People have been struggling to get through it, which is awesome, ’cos that’s another misconception about vegan food – that you’re never full.”
The menu also busts the myth that vegan food is joyless, too.
The sandwich names are jokey (a dairy-free number with vegan cheddar, Cuban ‘ham’ and pulled jackfruit is called ‘No Whey José’, while an artichoke and chickpea ‘tuna’ sourdough with vegan aïoli is named ‘Nothing Fishy’) and there are takeaway desserts as well. The shop is also stocked with vegan alternatives (such as macadamia cheese) for long-time converts to the diet as well as people curious about making the change.
"It needs to be awesome to showcase veganism, so people can understand that it’s easy to make the shift."
Milkless in Adelaide also offers a vegan take on deli staples – it’s a dairy-free cheesery with hand-made flavours such as smoky potato, spicy tomato and salted spinach and artichoke. It can be found at markets, events and even the Fox Creek cellar door in the McLaren Vale, where ‘cheese’ platters can be matched with vegan wines.
And of course, there’s Melbourne’s Smith & Deli, said to be the world’s first vegan deli.
It opened in mid-2015 as a spin-off to Smith & Daughters, the much-loved vegan restaurant famous for its blockbuster queues and inspired Latin-leaning menu.
For co-owner and chef Shannon Martinez, Smith & Deli wasn’t just a way for her to cook in a more everyday way, it also offered practical relief for Smith & Daughters – its hugely popular location was heritage-listed, which meant Martinez and co-owner Mo Wyse couldn’t expand on the restaurant’s under-sized kitchen and cool rooms.
“One of the reasons for opening the deli was to give us another space to help back the restaurant, but by opening the deli, the deli became busier than the restaurant, so that whole idea went out the window completely.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise Smith & Deli blew up like it did.
Where else could you get vegan deli meats – from ‘ham’ and ‘pastrami’ – sliced and by the kilo?
The top-selling ‘salami’ is cleverly made with vital gluten and white beans, coated in chilli, then steam-baked and cooled. It’s popular as a pizza topping and can be paired with the ‘buffalo mozzarella’ that Martinez sets in brine.
“It would be a lot easier if I had a non-vegan deli and I could just buy my ham and my cheese and put it on a sandwich,” she says, but the chef makes everything from scratch. Some vegan meats take two days to complete and “we go through 20 litres of aïoli a day”. There are take-home versions of deli staples, like egg salad and tuna salad, as well as very modern, party-starting updates: think tiramisu brownies, Big Mac scrolls and southern fried ‘chicken’ pizza with mash, gravy and peas.
“I wanted a place that people could come to everyday, which they do,” says Martinez. “We have the same person come in every day at 8.30, they get their coffee and their breakfast and they’re in five days a week and that to me is the sort of venue I wanted to have.”
Mon-Sat 8am-3pm, Sun 8am-2pm
Shop 4/241 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills, NSW
111 Moor St, Fitzroy, VIC
Shift Eatery images by Paulpapayasalad.