Above photograph via Support + Feed
As a leading city in the plant-based movement, Philly is home to vegan restaurants changing the face of food justice.
More and more Americans are waking up to the benefits of plant-based eating. But the image of who represents a vegan lifestyle is not always reflective—or inclusive—of those who subscribe to it. While social media has made many thin, white influencers and celebrities the face of veganism, some BIPOC vegan communities are working to make plant-based eating and cruelty-free living accessible to all.
Philadelphia is a city that, in so many ways, serves as a microcosm of the United States—a colonial city built by innovation, blue-collar labor, and a diverse population. It’s also a leader in the plant-based movement, and the Black vegan restaurant community has found a way to pair the causes of food education and social justice.
A plant-based diet is dependent on access to fresh foods, and BIPOC-run vegan businesses have had to figure out how to best reach their customers. Here are seven some of the restaurants and community leaders leading that charge.
7 BIPOC-led restaurants helping Philadelphia’s communities access fresh foods
1 | Nourish Cafe and Juice Bar
Nourish Cafe and Juice Bar is a soulful restaurant that’s packed every day of the week. It’s located in the Italian Market, the country’s oldest continuously operated outdoor market. In the corner, they sell sea moss, a type of seaweed touted for its health properties, and shea butter.
Behind the counter, you’ll find the co-owner, Sarah Scandone, an Italian American Rastafarian. She and her Jamaican partner, who asked to remain anonymous, have become familiar faces to locals, as they first owned Hibiscus Cafe in West Philly. “I’ve owned vegan restaurants for 20 years now, and it’s just really to be able to provide our community with healthy food and an option to be able to change what their norm is,” Scandone says.
The urban center of Philadelphia has pockets of food deserts—areas where it’s hard to access fresh, healthy foods—leaving many residents to rely on corner convenience stores or bodegas for grocery shopping. Scandone explains, “We want to reach people that need nutrition and help to change their environment, their consciousness, and condition.
We want to normalize vegan food and normalize that it can be delicious and healthy as well.” A few crowd favorites on the menu at Nourish are the vegan lettuce-wrapped fried chicken sandwich made with enoki mushrooms and plantain nuggets.
2 | Hip City Veg
Nicole Marquis owns the Hip City Veg chain, as well as Charlie was a Sinner, an upscale small plates restaurant, and the Latinx-themed Bar Bombon. She became vegan to improve her health and the health of her family, which hails from Puerto Rico.
She’s seen how the pandemic has hurt marginalized groups in Philly. One of the missions that she took up this year was getting fresh plant-based options to those in need.
Partnering with Support and Feed has been a success—it’s a vegan non-profit founded by Maggie Baird, a PETA Humanitarian Award-winner, and mom to Billie Eilish. Marquis told LIVEKINDLY, “We’ve been basically feeding the community every day with Support and Feed. First, we delivered about 3,000 meals to frontline workers right after the pandemic. Now we’ve pivoted and have delivered over 2,000 meals to communities that are hardest hit and most vulnerable.”
Hip City Veg offers fast casual options like chicken sandwiches, a buffalo portobello burger, and a banana-based ice cream alternative. Charlie was a Sinner offers cocktails made with fresh juices and herbs, and Bar Bombon makes Cuban sandwiches and cheesesteak empanadas with homemade spicy ketchup.
3 | Unit Su Vege
Sometimes activism is simply representation. In cities such as Philadelphia which contain pockets of international communities—from Chinese to Dominican to Vietnamese—cultural cuisine is king. Many BIPOC restaurants are offering healthier eating choices to their communities by serving vegan options of traditional cultural dishes.
Unit Su Vege, the second vegetarian Chinese restaurant from Yi Wu and family, is a favorite for vegans and meat eaters alike. Their first restaurant, Su Xing House, opened 14 years ago, at the insistence of wife Nancy Lin, who is a vegetarian. They sold it to their friend in 2018, and then their children wanted to open Unit Su in 2019.
Unit Su is situated near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and features a 90-percent vegan menu with every dim sum favorite. Unit Su makes vegan eating approachable using seitan to match textures and flavors of popular dishes such as Peking duck, char siu bao pork buns, and soup dumplings.
4 | Veganish
2020 newcomer Veganish owner Lamarr Ingram slowly became vegan after getting sick during the mad cow disease epidemic. According to Ingram, “I believe people are looking for healthy options. We want to introduce it to the community and let people experience it.”
Veganish opened right before the pandemic, a scary time for Ingram, who was already pushing back against anxiety about opening in a low-income area. Some critics were concerned that the people in that neighborhood wouldn’t want what he was selling, but he knew what it was like to travel outside of his neighborhood for vegan food.
“It wasn’t about making money,” he says. “I felt like I owed this to my community and to my culture to be able to do what I can do my part to try to make a difference. People definitely don’t expect people from that area to eat well—not even me. I go into places and people look at me like, what are you doing here. People think that it’s only for a certain class or a certain race of people.”
The restaurant offers plant-based and pescatarian versions of standbys like burritos, chicken cheesesteaks, and burgers.
5 | Sweet Treat Hut
Antwain Bullock is the owner of Sweet Treat Hut, which is a few blocks from Veganish, and he believes that his juice bars have empowered healthy eating and entrepreneurship. “We didn’t just want to be the healthy juice bar. We wanted to be the equity owner,” he says.
Bullock is visible in the community, hosting block parties and book giveaways. He even adopted a school. “Now we’re trying to figure out how to get a smoothie in every kid’s hand before they get to a certain age, and it’s a battle—a personal one,” he says. “I grew up in Philadelphia, and I can now look back and see it is a school to prison pipeline.” He believes a contributing factor is hunger.
“What do you expect when there’s no food, resources, or a school yard? People are hangry and they’re fighting. When we fight, they call us animals. Take away the healthy food and give them a bunch of processed sugar, and you have nothing but hungry animals,” he says.
Bullock’s efforts to create equity include creating a vibe that makes customers feel comfortable staying, like a barbershop or salon. Just like these staples of the Black community, customers are discussing building wealth and creating opportunities, which inspired Bullock to start offering franchising meetings, teaching members of the community how to grow their own Sweet Treat or other health-based businesses. “99 percent of my meetings are African American,” he says. “People on the outside don’t believe it, but we do want to be successful, and we do want to be healthy.”
6 | The Nile Cafe
The Nile Cafe is the oldest and longest-running vegan restaurant in the city, and it has been propped up by the Black community it serves. Spaces within the restaurant are often reserved for community education and events, which cover everything from Black history and healthy eating, to pop-up shops supporting other Black businesses. While the entire menu is delicious, they are known for their dairy-free baked goods, and vegan pepper steak, jerk chicken, and fried fish.
7 | Supreme Oasis Bakery and Deli
Setting foot into Supreme Oasis Bakery and Deli is a reminder of how good health is a core value for many aspects of Black culture. To your right is a mugshot of a nefarious pig, saying that Mr. Hog is wanted for murder—a commentary on the owner’s devout Muslim views on consuming pork. There’s also a photo of Prophet Elijah Muhammed, as well as a copy of his book. That is because Nuyen Muhammad, the friendliest owner on the planet, is a part of the Nation of Islam (NOI). She has also been fighting to reverse the effects of common diseases in the Black community, often caused by poor eating habits.
According to the Center for Disease Control, Black people have a greater risk of developing hypertension and type II diabetes. Many families of color eat the way the’ve been eating for years, influenced by the historic lack of access to fresh health foods, dating back to slavery. While her restaurant is not completely vegan, Muhammad is, and offers products comparable in texture and taste to traditional items, such as fried shrimp, bean pies (a NOI staple) and banana pudding.
Muhammad uses the delivery service Black and Mobile, which took off during the pandemic and helped to keep Black businesses thriving. Black and Mobile Founder David Cabello was a delivery person for UberEats, Postmates, and Caviar, and after seeing his earning potential and the fact that there were no Black-owned delivery services, he decided to start his own. He has made Black restaurants more accessible and has expanded out of Philadelphia to Detroit, Baltimore, and Atlanta.
Philly’s BIPOC vegan communities and restaurants rally around each other in times of need. This summer, Nourish’s South Street location burned down. Luckily, within months, they were able to move into their South Philly location.
Scandone explains, “The community was very supportive. I felt like, not only had my employees and I suffered a loss, but the community showed up just to show their love and show their support. Their desire to donate and watch us rebuild was one of the reasons we reopened so quickly. It wasn’t just for us, but for our patrons, too.”
The vegans of color in Philadelphia are an extension of its brotherly love, and their work at building and supporting their communities offer a pledge to ensure that POC-led businesses succeed.
Written by Tonya Russell
Tonya Russell is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist who writes about mental health, wellness and culture. To see more of her work or her cute dog photos, follow her on Twitter @thetonyarussell.