In 2012, Philadelphia native Nicole Marquis opened the first HipCityVeg. Five years later, she now runs Bar Bombón and Charlie was a sinner. in Center City, as well as four HipCityVeg locations across Philly and DC. Nicole spoke to Street about entrepreneurship, Penn's campus, and the famous banana whip.
On the origins of HipCityVeg:
When I became vegan, my life changed as a result, because I realized that what we eat affects not only our health, but also the environment and other living things. I recognized the tremendous impact that eating a solely a plant–based diet has on the world. That’s really when my life pivoted and I decided, “Okay, how do I bring this to millions of people everywhere?,” which is the big vision and my mission. So I was working in restaurants, paying my way through grad school and college, and I left grad school to start this, because I became so passionate about it.
So what I did was I created a menu that I thought people would be attracted to. I thought, “What is it that we really want to eat?” We want to eat a crispy chicken sandwich. It’s just so good, and you go to McDonald’s for it, you go to Wendy’s for it. So I thought, “This is the model.” And so I just spent months and months and months going back and forth with chef consultants, coming up with the right flavor profile. I said, “Well, I want to do a ranch.” And they said, “What about peppercorn ranch?’” And I’m like, “Yes!” Like a back–and–forth, really creative process, coming up with the right menu that we still sell today.
On the values that drive her business:
It’s all part of one thing. Embracing our healthy bodies, our stewardship to the planet, and compassion for all living things—they’re all connected. And so living a happy, fulfilling life for me is bringing all the parts into the whole, really thinking about life in a holistic way, making wellness a lifestyle. So I definitely had to apply it to my business. And you see that in the composting, which is 100% plant–based—which automatically makes us, I dare to say, the most sustainable restaurant company in the city. That’s a bold statement.
I just applied that holistic lifestyle I wanted to live, and I took that into the business and created… a triple bottom line, where we think about people, planet, and profit, in that order. And the order is very important. So it’s good for the people, for our health, for our lives. And then the planet: how can we make sure that we are supporting sustainability? And lastly is profit. Because we need profit in order to grow, a part of our big vision is growth. It’s inherent in the model—we have to grow to reach more people.
On choosing Penn’s campus for HipCityVeg’s second location:
It just seemed perfect. Penn is known for having the most innovative, creative students. You’re always pushing the envelope, as forward–thinking and very progressive people. Also in West Philly, just the residents there were a great fit as well. And so we wanted to be a part of that—there was synergy there. For us it was a no–brainer, it was like, “We’re preaching to the choir,” because we knew that our audience is here. It was a key to our success, reaching out to the students at Penn.
On sustainability and veganism in the food world:
We’re seeing this trend of menus really adopting vegan options. And this is big. This is why it’s so freaking satisfying to continue to do what we’re doing, because this work is brutal. But there’s such a great impact when you can do it, and we’re seeing it already. People care about what they’re eating. And that’s just now starting to become a conversation. Five years ago, when I opened the first HipCityVeg, I didn’t talk about anything. No one wanted to hear about factory farming when they were about to order a veggie burger. It’s just not a good look, and I didn’t want to alienate anyone. I wanted everyone to come into our restaurant and just try the food because I knew if I could get a Ziggy Burger in their mouth, or a vegan Philly Steak Sandwich, I knew I could bring them back. Today, it’s very different. I can now really tout the environmental impact that we’re having, and people want to hear about that. I can focus on the purpose, on the “why” behind it. And it’s just an added value to our customers. They feel good about it.
On what she orders at HipCityVeg:
I eat a Ziggy Burger with sweet potato fries and sriracha aioli, and a BFG, which is our blended fruits and greens smoothie. That is like heaven to me. I eat that a lot. The first year, I ate an Udon Noodle Salad every day. And then I was super into our fajita wraps. And sometimes I’ll do a side Caesar salad, just to get some greens, and then my BFG. So it’s a big meal. I eat a lot!
On the famous banana whip:
I definitely like to indulge, and just really feel uber satisfied when I’m eating something, I want it to hit all my senses. I want it to be a little salty, a little sweet, get a little spice going on. But I’ve always kept the banana whip as my staple when I was eating, because it would fill me up—it was the most healthy decadent treat I could have, because it’s just bananas. We ripen the bananas in house, and then we peel them, put them on a sheet tray, and freeze them. And then we take these organic frozen bananas and put them through the juicer and it comes out like soft serve.
On her entrepreneurship:
I think I always had it in me. From a very early age, I was creating business ideas. So I always had it in me that I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to do what I felt really passionate about, and nothing stuck for me because I didn’t feel it, I didn’t believe in it, it wasn’t bigger than me. So when I became vegan, my purpose became greater than myself, and that inspired me in itself. To be able to focus on the greater good, and something much bigger than me, and separate from me—that was momentum for me. It moved me to create the company.
At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur is very taxing. You never turn it off. It’s all day, all night, all week. So if you’re going to do that—for me I had to make it something that I felt could make the world better. So once I became vegan and realized, “I can no longer be a part of a system that tortures animals, destroys our land and water resources, and is the leading cause for all these diet–related diseases.” I was just like, “I know exactly what I need to do.”