Philly’s vegan-dining cred is now so well established that even the New York Times is on it, but in the meantime our hometown vegan businesses are already taking things a step further by bringing great Philly vegan dining experiences to the rest of the world, starting with the Atlantic seaboard.While Philly vegan food manufacturers have long exported plant-based goodness to outlets on the Northeast Corridor, this spring, for the first time, not one but three beloved Philly vegan joints are opening eateries in three different East Coast cities. Each is newsworthy in a different way, so let’s take them chronologically.
First out of the gate was VGE, which opened a franchise location on April 8 in Atlanta, in an office-complex food court. The locale is “kind of like Liberty Place,” said owner Fernando Peralta, who opened the first VGE in Bryn Mawr some four years ago.
The Atlanta VGE menu is “almost the same” as the original’s, Peralta said – the main difference is that the option of formatting a given menu item as a bowl, rather than a wrap or sandwich, is spelled out and given moe prominence. Open 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., the place does a brisk lunch business from 11:30 to 2 p.m. and is now working up its delivery system to capitalize on suppertime customers.
The healthy fast-casual spin at VGE is part of the Plant Pure Nation initiative launched by Nelson Campbell – son of The China Study’s T. Colin Campbell – which touts the benefits of a whole-foods plant-based diet free of added oils and added sugars. So far the lunchtime crowd is digging into the healthy-yet-tasty VGE approach, said Peralta, noting the restaurant’s out-of-town launch “went surprisingly well – better than I expected.”
Was it hard to keep tabs on a franchise some six states away? “We did simplify some practices,” he said, “to make it easier for local folks to manage the food, the cooking.” His operations manager was in Atlanta for 5 weeks overseeing the launch, and he said he wanted to see how the location fared before signing any more franchisees. Now he’s ready to focus on the next location locally, and though he’s already had a bunch of inquiries and a couple “preliminary talks” he’s “very motivated to talk with anybody local” about potential Philly-based spots, encouraging entrepreneurs to “reach out to us.”
In contrast to VGE’s franchise model, Nicole Marquis is opening HipCityVeg in Washington, DC next week (June 8) as the fifth enterprise in her growing Marquis & Co empire.
“Yeah, my hands are fully in it,” she said, noting that getting DC going while overseeing her four existing Philly venues (2 HCV’s, Bar Bombon and Charlie was a sinner.) has meant “nonstop work – and I thought I worked a lot before.” But it’s worth it: “We feel comfortable maintaining standards of quality” this way, she said.
The DC location, whose opening has been eagerly touted by no less than Senator Cory Booker (almost a V for Veg regular), is in the Chinatown section. “The neighborhood is welcoming and accessible, a good mix of business and residential, kind of like 18th Street [the first, Rittenhouse Square-based HCV, which also opened in 2012],” she noted, adding that the new venue’s menu will replicate the winning formula used so far in Philly.
From the sound of it, this will not be the only extramural excursion (another local HCV opens on Broad Street this summer) for her popular fast-casual brand: “I’ve been traveling a lot,” she said, “Looking at every city on the east coast,” but like Peralta, she’s watching how DC does before taking things to the next level – or to the next metropolis. But she’s confident that the demand is there.
“A wave of consciousness has swept cities,” Marquis said, “with people starting to understand plant-based food is not just good for our bodies, but for the planet and for the welfare of other living beings.” That mission of HipCityVeg, which “four years ago … was a big deal, is now becoming a lot more mainstream,” she said.
And what could be more mainstream than an old-school pizza parlor in New York City? Surprisingly, there is no vegan version as of yet in all of the five boroughs, and Mark Mebus, Blackbird co-owner Ryan Moylan and others who have lived in NYC “were all thinking, that’s absurd,” he said. “Something had to be done.”
So they did. Within the next few weeks a “New York-style” pizza-by-the-slice pizzeria that is yet unnamed will open in Brooklyn, a collaboration between the owners of Blackbird and those of Brooklyn’s all-vegan Champs Diner, which has, like many venues in Philly and neighboring states, already been using Blackbird seitan “for quite a while.”
It’s not impossbile to find vegan pizza in New York, Mebus notes: “There are places that have it, but not as their main thing – one fancy sit-down place, but it’s not New York-style.” As an honest-to-god pizza joint, the new place will feature food similar to Blackbird’s pizza offerings – bold creations ranging from standard vegan pepperoni and sausage pies to creative Philly favorites like the Haymaker – “but it’s just pizza,” so New Yorkers may still have to wait for Blackbird’s award-winning vegan cheesesteaks and seitan wings to make the trek.
The venue is in the northern portion of Brooklyn, just below Queens, and near an ice cream vendor, Leewan’s, who “usually has five or six vegan flavors,” and the neighborhood overall seems a good match, Mebus said. The project was also a good Philly/NYC team-up as Blackbird and Champs “have similar clienteles.”
The latter restaurant’s Brad Baker had previously operated “Champs Jr.” in the current space, but closed it, and he wanted to try pizza. Mebus brought that hard-wonn expertise, overseeing the menu and helping to get things set up, and the venue will be run day-to-day “pretty much by Brad and them,” he said.
Like Peralta and Marquis, Mebus sees the place tapping into a clear demand. “A vegan pizzeria? Everybody in Brooklyn, that’s what they’ve been waiting for,” said Mebus, adding “I think it’ll be awesome.”
I don’t doubt it. As “vegan” moves from a quirky optional adjunct to a modern menu must-have in every restaurant, it’s awesome that Philly’s innovatively delicious plant-based cuisine is now helping more people everywhere to eat animal-free.