Healthy competition

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Nicole Marquis , owner of HipCityVeg, is eager to open her eatery's second location, on 40th Street in University City. The local take-out spot is facing increasing competition from vegan-friendly chains.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Nicole Marquis , owner of HipCityVeg, is eager to open her eatery's second location, on 40th Street in University City. The local take-out spot is facing increasing competition from vegan-friendly chains.
Posted: October 04, 2013

WAIT, FAST food's supposed to be healthy now?

Recent moves make us wonder: Just days after Burger King unveiled its lower-fat Satisfries, McDonald's loudly pledged to include fruit and veggie sides as special-deal french-fry alternates, and to tone down its junk-food marketing to kids.

Chipotle has overhauled its previously "porky" pinto beans, making them suitable for vegans. (The company is tight-lipped about when every store will have them, but every Philly location I've checked does.) Plus, Chipotle is test-marketing a tofu burrito.

These changes aren't coming from restaurant companies' concern for your cholesterol, but from concern for their bottom line. As more people pay attention to where their food comes from and what it's doing to them, the game has changed for fast-food kingpins, including a market-share threat almost unthinkable a decade ago: all-vegan fast-food chains.

Yes, there are such things. As you'd guess, they started on the West Coast, and they're heading east.

Veggie Grill, the well-known and well-loved chain with 21 locations in California, Oregon and Washington, will likely be in New York City by this time next year.

Native Foods Cafe, with 15 locations (most out west, three in Chicago) is opening in D.C. next spring, with plans to be in Philly by next summer. And the nonvegan but veg-friendly Tropical Smoothie franchise (300 locations) is already serving Beyond Meat-based vegan dishes in our back yard (Glen Mills).

Hip to the competition

Increased veggie and/or healthy choices are something everyone can look forward to. But will homegrown Philly sit back as national chains waltz in and, you know, ring our bell?

Nicole Marquis doesn't think so. Next week, Philly will have its first vegan fast-food chain, as the fast-casual phenom HipCityVeg adds a second location at 214 S. 40th, balancing the Rittenhouse Square spot that opened in March 2012.

The University City outpost will launch with the same delicious, Rich Landau-created sandwiches and salads that have helped to make the 18th Street location a line-out-the-door success. The most notable difference for the new place is the larger space, offering three times as much seating.

"With 18th Street," Marquis explained as we chatted outside the new location recently, "the idea is more stop, grab and go. Whereas here, students may need a space for whatever - to use their computer, to study, to meet friends."

She said the second location will help her evaluate preferences in different areas. "For instance, the students might like shakes more," she theorized. And any scholars needing Groothies for a late-night brain-cell charge will find that 40th Street will be open until 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Marquis admitted she intends 40th Street as "the second of many," adding that, eventually, "I want to establish HipCityVeg as a national brand." But she's vowing not to rush into world domination, but to keep her eye on the details that will continue to set HipCityVeg apart long term.

"Getting the quality right and keeping it right" is a top priority, she told me.

Once she's established, Marquis will welcome a veggie influx - the national chains as well as the healthy and humane moves by Big Fast Food, not to mention other locally owned spots.

"I have a mission - to provide plant-based meals to millions of people," she said. "And I only encourage it if others are doing the same. It creates awareness, plus it keeps me on my toes - pushes me to do better, to be better."

She gazed up the street at the plentitude of colorful eateries crowding around her new store. "It's healthy competition."


Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.

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