When Eataly opened in New York City in 2010, one of the talked-about features of the Italian eating emporium was a vegetable or produce butcher. The vegetable butcher cuts up your fresh vegetables any way you want them so they're recipe-ready for your upcoming meals.

When I read that 2016 will be the year of the plant butcher on Medium, I thought the vegetable prep service idea was expanding, but boy, was I wrong. The current crop of plant butchers are artisans who are turning plant proteins into foods that mimic meats in appearance, taste and nutrition.

Medium's article highlights five plant butchers who have been in business less than three years but are seeing great success. Take the Atlas Meat-Free Deli in Hollywood, Florida, for instance. Owner Chef Ryan Echaus wanted to create a meat-eater's experience minus the meat, so he created them from plant proteins. He has "sausages, bratwursts, burgers and more that fully replicated the taste and texture of conventional meat, sans the animals." He also has deli meats like pastrami that are meatless.

Each plant butcher highlighted in the article creates similar plant-based protein foods — burgers, meatballs, sausages, barbecue, shredded pork — all foods that sound like they belong at a tailgate party, only no animals were harmed for the pre-game celebration.

The fascination with foods that look like meat (but aren't)

vegan-meatball-subFoods like this all-vegan meatball sub can help someone transition into a meatless lifestyle or satisfy their craving to eat old, familiar foods. (Photo: dogulove/flickr)

One thing I'm curious about, and I know others are too: Why do people who choose not to eat meat want foods that look and taste like meat?

The success of these plant butchers indicates that many herbivores want to sink their teeth into a juicy burger just as much as any beef-burger lover. So I threw a question out to some of my vegetarian and vegan friends, "Why do you like to eat foods that mimic meat?"

"They mean that I can satisfy my desire for something toothsome, savory, and filling without harming any animals," Glue and Glitter's Becky Striepe, a vegan, told me. "I also think meat analogs are a great transition food for omnivores who want to try eating vegan but aren't ready to re-magine their meals without something meaty on the menu."

Unfamiliar with the term meat analogs, I did a quick search for the term. Food & Nutrition says meat analogs are plant-based mock meats that look, smell and taste like animal protein.

MNN's Starre Vartan feels the same as Striepe about mock meat being a transition food. She ate "fake meats" for the first few years she was "veggie."

"To me, it's great transition food for people newer to not eating meat because our culture is so meat-centric. It used to be even worse - it's improved so much in the 23 years I've been veg, which is wonderful. It's been ages since I had fake meat, and most long-term veg folk I know don't eat it either. There are so many other things to eat!"

Other friends had some interesting reasons for choosing to eat fake meats. One said it's about mimicking the satisfying act of eating familiar foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, meatball sandwiches and leftover Thanksgiving sandwiches more than it is about the taste. Another said that she buys fake meats for her college-aged daughter because it's easier than prepping a fully balanced protein rich meal."

It's not just vegetarians and vegans who are choosing these analog meats. Americans who do eat meat are eating less of it and embracing a more flexitarian lifestyle. There may only be handful of plant butchers right now, but if Americans continue to eat less meat but crave something "toothsome, savory and filling," we'll probably be seeing many more of them.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Why do vegetarians need a butcher?
Vegetarians and vegans don't eat meat, but some of them like to eat foods that mimic meat. Enter the plant butchers.