January 21, 2020

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Fresh food on the go made fast and easy

Vita Health makes nutritious meals for people with busy schedules

Justin Ludwar, who prepares all of the ready-to-eat food for all six Vita Health locations, poses with some freshly made salads and sandwiches at the Westwood store.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Justin Ludwar, who prepares all of the ready-to-eat food for all six Vita Health locations, poses with some freshly made salads and sandwiches at the Westwood store.

‘We have a mission to empower people to live healthy lives," Vita Health’s Justin Ludwar says.

"Everybody is so busy these days, a grab-and-go meal makes sense, but we’re all much more conscious of what we’re putting in our bodies, especially in the last 10 years."

Ludwar, 43, is the chef behind the local health-food chain’s line of fresh-made takeout items, sold under the VitaMarket name. A collection of wraps, sandwiches, salads and soups — priced between $8.99 and $11.99 — the choices lean heavily toward vegan offerings, with many of them also gluten-free, using as many organic ingredients as possible.

For instance, the Tofu "BLT" features strips of smoky-sweet seasoned tofu on a gluten-free Schar ciabatta with egg-free mayonnaise, while the Zucchini Noodle Bowl includes zucchini spirals and organic tofu with a load of crisp, colourful veggies — snap peas, red cabbage, cucumber, shredded carrot — and a decadent vegan peanut dressing; the organic ingredients are indicated on the label.

Ludwar makes all the food in the kitchen at the chain’s biggest location in Westwood. The items, packaged in recyclable containers, are delivered fresh twice a week to all six Vita Health Fresh Markets.

Free-run oven-roasted turkey sandwiches.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Free-run oven-roasted turkey sandwiches.

The chef is no stranger to cooking healthy meals to go. He previously ran Beet Happening, a Notre Dame Avenue breakfast/lunch spot that the Free Press’s then-restaurant critic Marion Warhaft gave a glowing review. It offered many of its menu items for takeaway, including the house salad that’s become part of the VitaMarket lineup.

In addition to running his restaurant, he had been providing Vita Health — as well as several other local outlets — with grab-and-go options for a few years, so when he made the decision to close Beet Happening, a partnership with the company seemed like a natural (pardon the pun) fit.

"We already had a great relationship," he says. "And it’s really nice to be working 40 hours a week instead of 80."

Ludwar is committed to using local ingredients whenever possible — the five-grain bread used for the turkey deli sandwich is from Integrity/Hildegard’s bakery — and tries to be responsive to customers’ wishes. When some people expressed reservations about canola oil in the dressings, he experimented with sunflower oil to create new recipes.

He says the most popular items to date have been the house salad — which includes leaf lettuce, spiralized beets, grated carrots, chickpeas and quinoa — the sweet potato and wild rice salad, and the falafel wrap (it also comes in a salad), which features baked falafel ("We add sunflower seeds for some extra nutrition," he says), caramelized onion, tomato, green leaf lettuce and tahini sauce. Like all the dressings and sauces, the tahini is house-made.

And though the focus has been on vegan offerings, Ludwar says he hopes to add some more meat options to the line.

Falafel wraps.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Falafel wraps.

"We’re expanding to the freezer section; we just started with soups and chilis, and we’re going to move into stews," he says.

"We’re keeping it gluten-free here too, so we have a coconut curry soup and a beet borscht and an organic beef green chili."

VitaMarket is also hoping to cater to people who crave convenience but also enjoy cooking for themselves. The stores feature pre-chopped kale, zucchini noodles and riced cauliflower to save a step for time-strapped chefs.

"It’s also good for people who’d like their kids to help out in the kitchen but don’t want them using knives," Ludwar says, adding that the line will expand to include items such as pre-roasted vegetables and sweet potatoes for easy reheating.

"It allows the customer to take them home and feel like they’re involved in the mealtime process," he says.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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