(March 8, 2019) Thomas Steele was on the hunt Monday for a veggie burger, not one to eat, but one to serve.

The fact that not everyone in Ocean City wants to or can eat meat has become quite clear for Steele, who serves as a manager at Ocean Pines Yacht Club, where he routinely hears requests for a non-meat alternative.

“You don’t necessarily have a ton of vegetarians or vegans coming in. But you have at least one or two a night regardless if it’s a slow night, busy night,” said Steele, whose pursuit for the club’s newest menu item took him to the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association’s 45th annual Spring Trade Expo.

Specifically, he found himself in the back left corner of Ocean City convention center’s Exhibit Hall B, where Jens Retlev, 67, displayed a variety of veggie burgers with one common ingredient — the Swedish-born chef’s 50 years of culinary experience.

Retlev was in town representing VeggieLand, a Parsippany, N.J., retail sales and food service company that caters to vegetarians and health-conscious consumers. The company has been successful in markets along the East Coast and in the Midwest, and now Retlev envisions tapping into the Eastern Shore market.

Swedish chef

Swedish-born chef Jens Retlev had his 50 years of culinary experience on display through veggie burgers he showcased during the Ocean City Motel-Hotel-Restaurant Association’s Spring Trade Expo. The 45th annual event attracted more than 200 vendors to Ocean City Convention Center last Sunday and Monday.

The veggie burgers Retlev created as co-owner and chef of Jens & Marie, a New England-based company that works with VeggieLand, made strong initial impressions on visitors to the expo.

“I haven’t seen a ton (of veggie burgers) yet, but that was a good first one. I’m definitely looking for more as I continue to walk around today,” Steele said. “You definitely have to make sure you have some sort of (vegetarian) options available. The more options you can have that taste good, the more you’ll be able to attract those types of customers.”

Veggie burgers, in a way, have been a part of Retlev’s whole life. He grew up in Sweden at a time, Retlev said, when “vegetables where something we ate more than meat. Meat was expensive.” Families grew the vegetables they consumed, and he learned how to prepare meals centered on vegetables at home among a family of chefs. Which is why he persuaded a group of pessimistic managers at Au Bon Pain 15 years ago to give veggie burgers a try. Veggie burgers had been around for about a decade, but in retail sales, not on restaurant menus.

“No one is going to eat that. Everyone wants their roast beef,” those managers told Retlev, who was early in his eight-year tenure as the Boston-based restaurant chain’s director of food service. “We tried it as a limited-time offer,” he recalled of a black bean burger that quickly grew popular among customers. “We sold more of those black bean burgers than roast beef. It became a really big hit.”

The expo, the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association’s most high-profile event each year, featured a vast array of foods, beverages and other products on display among the approximately 320 companies from in and out the Ocean City area that occupied 400 exhibit booths at the event last Sunday and Monday.

Retlev believed VeggieLand was one of the few, if not only, booths offering veggie burgers, which gave his burgers a great chance to stand out among the roughly 5,600 people in attendance.

The taste of his burgers took care of the rest. “There are some really great options right here that we think fit perfectly with healthy plant-based, gluten-free options,” said Kelly Hartranft, co-owner of Viva Bowls, a superfruit café and food truck featuring acai bowls and smoothies that opened last November in Newark, Del.

Hartranft and partner Robert Peoples attended the expo for the first time, she said, because customers are requesting “savory foods that could be for all year. It’s really exciting when we see a display with savory, tasty options.”

Larger restaurants, she said, are discovering the greater need for plant-based, gluten-free foods on their menus, especially for customers with dietary restrictions. “You have to grow with your customers,” Hartranft said. Retlev wants to capitalize on that growing market.

“My philosophy is you can take one of our veggie burgers and you can put bacon and cheese on it and it becomes a great product and it tastes wonderful,” Retlev said. “Part of it is vegetarian, but there’s a lot of different opportunities.”

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