Keeping it real, fresh and vegan

VANCE LEHMKUHL / DAILY NEWS STAFF Dorinda Hampton and Mickey Davis display some of their Really Fresh Vegan flavored popcorn.
VANCE LEHMKUHL / DAILY NEWS STAFF Dorinda Hampton and Mickey Davis display some of their Really Fresh Vegan flavored popcorn.
Posted: February 07, 2014

"TASTY enough to turn Jay Z vegan!" That's a slogan Mickey Davis and Dorinda Hampton have not yet used to promote their Philly-based food line Really Fresh Vegan. But it's not out of the question.

Davis, a/k/a "Black Key," is a Grammy-nominated music producer who's worked with Ludacris, 50 Cent and DMX. He told me how, as producer of the official B-side remix of Beyonce's 2006 "Deja Vu" single, he'd discussed vegan food with Jay Z, and got him to try some.

Whether the superstars' December "22-day vegan challenge" was inspired by Davis and Hampton may never be known - until I get the chance to ask Jay Z himself - but Really Fresh Vegan aims for a big impact here in the Delaware Valley, where RFV sandwiches, snacks, juices and dessert items are increasingly showing up on store shelves.

You'll find them at several locations in University City, one in North Philly and ranging from Newark, Del., to Bryn Mawr, where a new Mom's Organic Market is opening this month. Additionally, RFV supplies vegan dinners for Real Food Works.

"We want to reach anybody who likes food," Davis said, "not just people who think of it as vegan food."

Hampton, who perfects the recipes, agreed. "Lots of people think something weird's going on with vegan," said Hampton, a veteran of Food Network's "24-Hour Restaurant Battle." "They can't see themselves eating anything that doesn't have some kind of meat protein in it." So, she works to make animal-free offerings that compete fully alongside mainstream products.

"I make everything the star," she explained, cooking ingredients separately and "combining them slowly to build up flavor components." She knows the attention to detail has paid off when she hears, "This food tastes good," not "This vegan food tastes good."

When Hampton says that tasters "couldn't believe it had no animal products," that echoes the surprised accolades of judges in her Food Network appearance. And having enjoyed some of RFV's cookies, pies and flavored popcorn myself, I can sympathize.

The business dates back to 2011, and for much of the interim was incarnated as Sprout, a juice bar in Kennett Square. Last summer, though, they decided to close that storefront "to focus on manufacturing, to be able to reach more people," Davis said.

To that end, new products are in development, including a "hybrid" (juice + herbs + probiotics) juice cleanse called "Day" that will be delivered locally, plus a line of breakfast convenience foods targeted to busy Penn students.

On the latter, Davis credited the Penn Vegan Society with invaluable advice. For his part, Victor Galli, of PVS, recalled, "We walked into one of the retailers and saw Really Fresh Vegan, tried some of it and were impressed by how high-quality the items were."

Quality is important, Galli stressed, because eaters of vegan food "need to prove to the world that we're discerning," not just buying whatever says "vegan" on the label. (It's the same "raise the bar" impulse that drives the PVS-initiated Ivy League Vegan Conference, in Princeton, this weekend; more at iv-conference.org).

To Hampton, success is measured by the fact that "people say, 'This is a food I can eat,' " not worrying about what niche it might be filling. And the more people try and enjoy RFV, the less weird, and more mainstream, animal-free eating becomes.

As we go to press, the online buzz mill has Beyonce starting another 22-day vegan stint after slimming down with the last one. Davis said that he wouldn't be surprised to see B remain vegan, because, with the right foods, plant-based eating sells itself.

"Even if you don't do it the whole way," he said, "you can still see benefits."


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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