The smell of baked goods, mac and cheese, burgers, and stew wafted through the air, as people packed into the Rotunda to enjoy vegan delicacies on Oct. 17. Hosted by Philly Vegan Restaurant Week, the event featured eight food vendors, each offering a sample of their plant–based menu items to customers right here in University City. The turnout was substantial, and by the second hour, most items had sold out.
Philly Vegan Restaurant Week—which ran from Oct. 13 to 19—found its beginnings through a vegan Facebook group. Their first restaurant week took place in Sept. 2018, and they’ve held two more since then.
This year, the organizers were especially focused on affordability and charity. Rather than having $20–30 fixed menus, PVRW’s food court offered special menu items at more reasonable prices. “We are trying to make vegan food as accessible as possible,” said one organizer, Carmella Lanni, who owns a vegan convenience store called V Marks the Shop in South Philly. One of Lanni’s co–organizers, LJ Steinig, added to this point, noting that every table was offering at least one item costing $5 or less.
The event was well attended by vegans and non–vegans alike. The line for UnSoul Food's mac and cheese alone extended the length of the entire room, almost to the exit. Among the large vegan crowd, however, there was great diversity—both of race and of vegan ideology. Vegans of many backgrounds had a variety of reasons for having chosen a plant–based diet. Lanni had gone vegetarian for health reasons, and transitioned to veganism for the sake of animal rights. Steinig cited animal rights and environmental concerns. Morgan had trouble reconciling being a pet owner with consuming animal products. Vendor Sherimane Johnson went vegan after finding that her use of dairy had posed a barrier to some of her customers. Johnson later found that going vegan had stopped her from having to take medicine to treat her type two diabetes.
Sherimane Johnson is the founder and owner of Naturally Sweet Desserts and Night Owl Vegan. Her stand at the food court was selling sweet potato cheesecake, gluten–free brownies, and peanut stew, among other things. Johnson is an IT program manager originally from New York, and started her food business in 2009. Initially, she was making non–vegan healthy desserts, but switched to fully plant–based to accommodate her customers’ needs. The company now offers a meal delivery service and food at every meal time—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. She feels that there is some resistance to veganism in Philadelphia because of the existing food culture (read: hoagies and cheesesteaks), but she holds that a vegan diet can be just as delicious. “We are foodies…We eat just like everybody else. We want more than salad and a baked potato,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s call for creativity echoes the PVRW organizers’ sentiment that veganism in the Philly community is extremely innovative. “It’s a great community, really excited about food, really excited about…the fundraising and the activism,” she said. Lanni agreed, adding that “people have this perception that Philly is so tough and they don’t care, but…they care—and they care a lot.”
Lanni hopes that events like the food court can dispel the misconception that veganism is an “elitist lifestyle” by showing that the vegan community is both diverse and universally accessible: she described it as “all walks of life, just coming together—for whatever reason you’ve gone vegan, there’s that connection.” And for non–vegans like customer George McLeode, the community at large still encourages vegan options. Even his other non–vegan friends know where to get the best Impossible burger. “Even if they’re not going all in—they’re still making those life decisions.”
In general, the event represented a love for small businesses, innovation, animal rights, personal health and well–being, and environmental consciousness. The uniqueness of Philly’s vegan scene could certainly be felt at the Rotunda last Thursday: the diversity of people and cuisines, the laid–back atmosphere, the music, and the sense of camaraderie in sharing delicious food was absolutely Philadelphian. And I, personally, never knew a sweet potato cheesecake could taste so good.