2020 was undoubtedly one of the most difficult years the food industry has faced to date. With lockdown orders imposed nationwide to curb the spread of COVID–19, many restaurants were forced to lay off workers, or even permanently close, as profits declined. In just the first month of the pandemic, 8 million restaurant jobs were lost.
As beloved local institutions were forced to shutter, Crust Vegan Bakery emerged as a unique success story. The Philly–area favorite managed to open an entirely new storefront in Manayunk—while continuing to pay all of their workers a living wage and donate to local aid organizations and community fridges—in the midst of the financial hardships brought about by COVID–19.
When lockdown orders were first issued, all Crust’s major sources of revenue dried up. “All the weddings were canceled, and then all the coffee shops and restaurants closed,” Shannon Roche, one of the co–owners of Crust, explains. “So our business went into basically nonexistence.”
But Crust quickly adapted, packing up any food or ingredients that were likely to spoil before they could get back into the kitchen safely and donating them to local shelters or food banks. The company also drew on its savings to continue paying workers while they applied for unemployment insurance.
Unfortunately, almost half of Crust’s employees were denied benefits. So Roche and Meagan Benz, Crust's other co–owner, began brainstorming solutions—anything from offering isolated workspaces and limited pickup options to letting customers buy their recipes online (I recommend trying out their chocolate chip cookie recipe).
Once summer hit, Crust's co–owners began to realize that this model was unsustainable. Roche and Benz hadn’t paid themselves for six months in order to keep more money available for paying their employees, but even that wasn’t enough. In order to stay afloat, they had to do something drastic.
Around the same time, a longtime friend of theirs chose to vacate his space on Main Street in Manayunk. Roche and Benz saw this as an opportunity to expand their business into the commercial side of the food industry. It was then that the very first Crust Vegan Bakery storefront was born.
Going from signing a lease in June to a soft opening in late August was, by all accounts, a miracle. They tried to cut costs wherever they could. “Basically, if we could do it ourselves, we did it,” Roche says. “So it’s not fully decorated.” The most important thing wasn’t making it look perfect—it was getting the bakery open so that they would have a source of revenue to pay their employees.
Since June, Roche and Benz have been able to compile a collection of political art for their walls, plants to put in front of their bay windows, and a bunch of vegan sauces and spices from local businesses to fill up counter space. Perhaps their most noticeable piece of decor is a seasonally appropriate Gritty figurine (who just transitioned from ice queen to May queen for the spring equinox) built by one of their cake decorators. They’re also in the process of building a free library and a “feed it forward” wall, which Shannon describes as “a nod to the mitzvah wall at Lagusta’s Luscious [Commissary].”
While it’s still a work in progress, the storefront has been wildly successful. In fact, it’s done so well that Crust is now looking to hire three to four more people to help them keep up with the boom in business.
The path to opening a new location was certainly a rocky one. Although the co–owners had both worked in the restaurant industry before, they had never operated their own commercial storefront.
But doing something new was, ironically, not very new for the two bakers. Formerly a student on the Ph.D. track for biochemistry, Roche’s expertise wasn’t exactly in the culinary arts. She actually became interested in vegan baking for a rather practical reason: “I went vegan when I was in college in rural Tennessee, and there were not a lot of vegan options at the time. So if I ever wanted to eat a cookie again, I had to learn how to bake one.”
From then on, her love of vegan baking snowballed, and eventually she decided to open her own bakery. A few friends suggested that she reach out to Benz, who had similar aspirations. They sat down for a cup of coffee to chat about a potential business partnership and clicked instantly. “All of the sudden, four hours went by, and the coffee shop was kicking us out because they were closing,” Roche says. “And we were like, ‘Oh, I guess this just works.’”
A big part of what created this rapport was their shared interest in vegan baking, but their similar experiences as queer women in an overwhelmingly male–dominated industry gave them even more reason to open their own shop. Homophobia, sexism, and racism are often unacknowledged but pervasive components of workplace culture in the restaurant industry.
It’s an open secret that working in a commercial kitchen can bring out the worst in people, and Roche and Benz are not strangers to this. “It can be a really hyper–masculine, very masochistic environment, where you're punishing yourself by working these wildly long schedules and not eating and not sleeping, and then your shift ends and you all drink together,” says Roche. “It can create this really toxic environment of really high highs and really low lows.”
Both having experienced this toxicity, Roche and Benz wanted to make sure their business facilitated a culture that was exactly the opposite. Crust is a proudly queer–owned business, and a big part of that is fostering an accepting culture. “I don't want to hide part of myself to go to work. And I don't want any of my staff to have to do that either,” Roche says. “I want them to be able to show up as themselves, whatever that is—whether it's that they're an immigrant, or they're Indigenous, or they're queer, or they're disabled.”
Another important component of their business model is being a triple–bottom–line business, which means adapting their operations in line with issues that impact the broader community. The term, which Crust adopted as part of their membership to the Sustainable Business Network, refers to the idea that companies are responsible for more than just profits—they should care about people and the planet, too. “We're never going to have shareholders that make tons of money, and Meagan and I are never going to pay ourselves absurd wages that are, you know, 15 times what our staff are making,” Roche explains.
Of course, profit is still important. It’s what allowed Crust to build up enough savings to keep paying their workers during the pandemic, after all. But to Roche and Benz, it's not the most important thing. Supporting local organizations with missions like racial justice, climate justice, animal rights, etc.—you can find a complete list on their website—is a huge part of what they do, and they treat these donations just like any other operating costs.
Crust also cares about minimizing food waste, a mission that has guided its co–owners' commitment to donating leftover food. As millions of people were plunged into food insecurity during the pandemic, community fridges became an even more important part of Crust’s business model. Although the business always made a point to donate excess food to community centers around the holidays, the increased demand for its goods over the past year has allowed it to increase the frequency of its donation runs to multiple times per week—Germantown Community Fridge on Sundays, and The People’s Fridge on 52nd Street, and East Falls Community Fridge on weekdays.
For Roche, this is also an important way to make vegan baked goods more accessible to people who might not be able to afford their steeper prices. “While we might be inaccessible for someone to come into the storefront and purchase a birthday cake or purchase a pop tart, we're also directly giving those away for free to try and maximize what we're doing,” she says. Ultimately, Crust really believes that “food is for everyone.”
Unfortunately, it’s not cheap to make things ethically. Even though Crust wants everyone to be able to eat quality vegan baked goods, there’s no way to produce them for a cheap price while also treating workers well and using good ingredients. “We're using organic and local ingredients and fair trade chocolate, and the person that's making it has access to health insurance, and [paid time off], and is getting paid a living wage, which means that the pop tart can't cost what it costs for you to go to Costco and buy a box,” Roche says.
But between their donations to community fridges and the upcoming “feed it forward” wall at their Manayunk location, Crust is doing what they can to break down the financial barriers to their food, and it's continuing to make amazing food in the process. Although 2020 might have been a difficult year for many restaurants, Crust Vegan Bakery’s commitment to justice never wavered, and the business has only grown more successful because of it.
Location: Crust Storefront – Manayunk: 4409 Main St.
Hours: Monday/Tuesday: closed
Wednesday/Thursday: 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Friday/Saturday/Sunday: 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Location: GrindcorexCrust – West Philly: 4134 Chester Ave.
Hours: Monday – Sunday, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
P.S. You can also find a list of wholesale partners, who are located throughout the city and carry a selection of Crust’s goodies, on its website.