Photo credit Miya Libman; Image design by Grace Yagel

This Vegan Butcher Makes the Best Pastrami Sandwiches

And has a very Jewish backstory.

Five years ago, in the midst of my synagogue’s Hanukkah bazaar, I had my first taste of Grass Fed bacon. Not “grass-fed” like you typically hear in reference to meat — in fact, Grass Fed doesn’t sell any meat at all.

Grass Fed is a vegan butcher shop in Rochester, NY, part of a growing movement across the U.S., from the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis to The Butcher’s Son in California and “Eat Meati” products in grocery stores nationwide. At vegan butcher shops, you can expect meat available by the pound, with one important distinction: The meat is not meat at all, but made of plant-based proteins like seitan, tempeh and vital wheat gluten. 

But Grass Fed has gone beyond just selling meat. Following the opening of their storefront in 2021, Grass Fed expanded into a deli concept, offering vegan takes on Jewish deli staples, like their “Back in the U.S.S. Reuben” and “Pastrami, Myself, and I.”

Rob Nipe (“The Butcher”) and Nora Rubel (“The Butcher’s Wife”), a Jewish studies professor at the University of Rochester, say that Grass Fed’s origin story is inspired by Passover and the challenge of knowing what you wanted to eat but needing to make substitutions. Switching to a plant-based diet, Nipe told The Nosher, felt similar. He had to get creative with his cravings. He started with what he most wanted to eat — breakfast sausage — and then continued to create vegan recipes for the products he missed most. 

Nipe calls their sandwiches “training wheels to veganism,” and hopes to prove you don’t have to sacrifice your favorite foods to be vegan.

Rubel says Grass Fed’s variety, carrying everything from turkey slices to brisket and salami, is what sets it apart from other vegan butcher shops. They are also the only vegan butcher shop in New York State.

Nipe grew up in New Jersey, where the classic Jewish deli experience was ingrained in him from a young age. It was “no question” that he and Rubel wanted Grass Fed to be like the delis he grew up around, with sandwiches, big piles of meat and cold salads in the deli case. 

Beyond the food, they want Grass Fed to be a third space for the community, where “you’re a regular, people know you [and] they know what kind of sandwiches you like,” says Rubel. They hope to build a community that brings “ kindness and equity to all corners of our world.”

Nipe and Rubel initially sought a kosher certification when they opened Grass Fed, as they sympathized with the struggle of finding kosher places to eat in Rochester, and because most vegan food is kosher by default. Although (as of January 2024) Grass Fed no longer has kosher certification, Nipe and Rubel say that a broader Jewish community has continued to support them.

Photo credit Miya Libman

I’ve had the pleasure of eating at Grass Fed several times (including one notable occasion when they debuted their sandwich “Knowing Me Cubano-ing You” with an entire playlist of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” covers on repeat).

On my last visit, I wanted to sample the most Jewish sandwiches I could: a pastrami on rye and a classic Reuben. Though I have not had meat in years, I had my mom taste-test with me, and she confirmed that these sandwiches are as much for omnivores as they are for plant-based eaters. The Reuben was satisfying with punchy sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and a thick layer of Grass Fed’s corned beef. But by far our favorite was the hot pastrami sandwich. The meat was convincingly smokey and savory, and the mustard cut through the sandwich perfectly.

What’s next for Grass Fed? Nipe is hoping to figure out the logistics to ship Grass Fed products to customers across the country, and continues to develop new recipes and expand their offerings, like filled hand pies.

I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the day that I can ship Grassfed’s sliced bacon and mushroom pâté right to my door. But until then, if you ever find yourself looking for lunch in Rochester — or in the mood for a food-fuelled road trip — you’ll find all the satisfying plant-based goodness you could want at Grass Fed, with the homey familiarity of a classic Jewish deli.

This article was produced as part of The Nosher’s Jewish Food Fellows Program, which aims to diversify the voices telling Jewish food stories in media spaces. 

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