Meet the restaurateur and learn about the environmental mission behind his latest downtown eatery
CM: How did you get into F&B?
JA: In college, I studied sports management and then got a job selling sports flooring. It wasn’t for me. After six months, I suggested to a buddy that we open a Mellow Mushroom. The chain is based in Atlanta, where I’m from. I wanted a franchise so I could learn the business but one that could have its own identity. We looked in Charleston—ironically, at the exact King Street spot Mellow Mushroom was in—but ended up in Charlottesville, Virginia. I loved playing a part in the design, and I’ve opened 10 bars and restaurants since 2001.
CM: What sparked your decision to become vegan?
JA: An Instagram account by a special-needs goat rescue helped me see that animals have the capacity for every emotion we as people experience, from joy to grief. That led me to other activists, and what they said made so much sense. So I cleaned out the fridge; stopped buying leather, silk, and wool; sold my restaurants; and began looking for a space where I could truly advocate for animals through food.
CM: What motivated you to launch a vegan restaurant in the midst of a pandemic?
JA: I was halfway through opening when all of this hit, but my theme is very dystopian, mid-apocalyptic, so it fits. Neon Tiger is about education—we’re in the middle of a species extinction crisis, and animal agriculture is the number one cause. If the trajectory continues, then we’ll be left with only representations of these animals, just neon tigers.
CM: What are your favorite substitutions for popular animal-based foods?
JA: The flavors and satiation—the things people worry about losing—can be easily recreated, so it’s more about getting the right mouthfeel. I’ve found some awesome meat alternatives, like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. Incredible strides have also been made with vegan cheese—we use a brand called Follow Your Heart that makes every kind you can imagine.
CM: What’s on the menu?
JA: When Neon Tiger first opened, we served only pizza. Early on, I got in touch with popular vegan chef Doug McNish, an activist who just came down from Toronto to help roll out our full menu. We’ve now added mac and cheese, a whole roasted cauliflower, a [meatless] burger and Reuben, buffalo “chicken,” a lentil ragu, and some desserts.
CM: How do you get non-vegans through the door?
JA: I tried to design a bar so undeniably cool that people would want to come in just to have a drink. Brent Sweatman and Jeremy Buck did an incredible job creating cocktails that will blow your mind. Once they’re here, customers will usually try the pepperoni pizza, and they have no idea they’re eating plants rather than pork. No one can walk away from that experience without a seed planted.
CM: Tell us about your plans to have Neon Tiger certified as a B Corporation.
JA: For me, it’s more a badge to show that we’re not just focused on making money—Neon Tiger is about something bigger. I give 10 percent of profits to the Agriculture Fairness Alliance. I’m also developing an app to bring the vegan community together, because there’s a lot more power in numbers.