Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
After numerous delays and stumbling blocks, chefs Rich Landau and wife/partner Kate Jacoby opened their vegetable-focused restaurant, Vedge, in late 2011, updating and refining the cuisine for a new generation of local plant-eaters.
The popularity and accolades for Rich Landau and his crew have only grown with each passing month, and earlier this week, it was named Restaurant of the Year on this very site for the annual Eater Awards.
We chatted up Landau about those early struggles in their first year of existence, the promise of a new restaurant for their Philly fans, and the strong possibility of another one in a far away land.
When did you and Kate Jacoby decide to do Vedge?
Horizons closed in 2011, so I guess it was mid-2010. We were looking all of the time, and took trips out to L.A. to see what was up. In our world it always starts in L.A. and then hits New York and trickles down to us awhile after that. So, we decided to just head straight there and get a jump on it.
Horizons could have kept going, it was fine as it was, but we wanted to stay fresh and stay ahead of the game. You know, you read the blogs because everything happens instantly. There's no print anymore, and if you wait for the news to hit print, they're on to the next thing. We felt like the food we were doing, the modern vegan cuisine, had outlived Horizons. It was more of the moment, and it was much more vegetable-focused. We left the diet references behind and focused on the food references. We had this concept going two years ago, and noticed that Horizons was done with the old stuff. We needed to change the concept.
Was it nerve-wracking to shut down Horizons while you were on top? Did you ever worry that the new concept wouldn't do as well?
No. No, not at all. And that came with the confidence we had with what we were already doing at Horizons, since the change was already happening. Autopilot is a dangerous thing in this business, and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" doesn't work with restaurants.
I walk all over town and have this quest to find 10 restaurants that you haven't blogged about, and I've done it successfully on numerous occasions, and that situation is our biggest fear. Becoming irrelevant. We were so petrified falling into being "that place." There are so many places that fall into that category.
Our feeling was if we don't get a vegetable-focused restaurant downtown soon, someone else would. And if they beat us to the punch, Horizons would be this antiquated place. Becoming a dinosaur almost overnight. We were more concerned about not changing than changing.
What sets Vedge apart from the rest of the vegan restaurants in the U.S.?
We call it the "at the moment" concept. Our ingredients are all the hot ingredient of the minute. Sure we have portobello mushrooms, but it's done in a 2012 way. We needed to make sure that the dining experience was very 2012, including service and the bar, the whole restaurant. We needed to dispel the myths that we're a bunch of pot-smoking hippies that listen to the Grateful Dead making vegan chili.
It took a little longer with Horizons, but at Vedge, we were going right out of the gate. With Horizons, if you're a vegan restaurant, the second a server disappears, the customer figures he or she's out getting stoned. We learned that we can't take vacations every year, and it's important to be at the restaurant all the time. It's led to a success we couldn't imagine. Keeping the dining experience sharp and fresh shows people how serious we are, and how important it is to us.
What were some of the biggest challenges of the first year?
The space has been a blessing and a curse. It's an amazing building, but because it's a historic building, we needed to work inside some strict parameters. We couldn't knock down walls, and we needed to use a specific union contractor who was a specialist working with these types of buildings, so it put the construction behind for a long time. The funny thing is, now that the space is done, I love everything about it, and wouldn't have made the changes I wanted to originally, so it was a blessing in disguise. It was a gift we didn't see originally.
The biggest challenge we had though, was, we put our employees out a long time while we waited on the construction to be complete. And they waited a very long time and stuck it out with us throughout the process. And we can't thank them enough.
What were some of the unexpected positive surprises?
We're attracting top of the line talent all over the city. It used to be we would just those people who wanted to learn veggie cooking, but now the best of the best are looking for work, which is just so humbling. I have chefs who are coming from very high-paying gigs with Starr or Garces or Vetri, and I can't believe they want to work here. It's just awesome. They love the quality of the product, in the front of the house and the back. It's an honor.
Also, trying to bring a high-end L.A. concept to a big old building in Philly wasn't exactly a perfect fit. But, it worked out. It ended up being the right move. We were looking at the little Spiga space down the street, thought it would be a better fit. But, this has just worked out perfectly.
The critics have all thrown praise at your restaurant beyond just being a great vegan restaurant, but a great restaurant in general. Was that a surprise?
No, that was what we set out to do. We knew the next step would be to compete with the best of the best, and be compared to the best in the city. The best in the world.
No one wants to be the best vegan restaurant in town, because there are no other vegan restaurants in town. That's like saying Zahav is the best Israeli restaurant in town. It's the only one. It just happens to be one of the best restaurants in town, too.
So, what still needs to be refined at Vedge?
Boy, that's a tough question. We need to get our happy hour stronger. I walk by all of these places, like Tria that are killing it then, or that restaurant on Spruce. Mercato is it? Mercato has people eating late at night, too. So, we need to get happy hour and late night up to speed. We're doing well, but it could always be better. We just need to show people that it's approachable and affordable. There are like 15 combinations of four plates that are under $30 here.
Will there be another restaurant coming from your team?
Yes, for sure. I can promise that.
Can you give us any more info?
Uhhh. Yeah, I can. We've got two different concepts ready to go, and we're looking at spaces once a week. So whatever concept fits the space we find, that's the one we're going to do. We've already got people behind it, and there's lots of support. It's going to happen.
You've mentioned L.A. as the epicenter of the vegan world. Do you consider opening a restaurant there the ultimate goal? Will we see Vedge there?
We have people who have approached us about that specific situation, and I think it's going to happen. There are talks already, but nothing is set in stone. We've got interest abroad, too, and the wheels are in motion. I would not be surprised to see a Vedge in L.A. and London by 2015.
You haven't been a vegan forever. And you've discussed your past love affair with meat. Do you ever miss it, and what would be the first thing you would eat if you ever gave up the vegan life?
I miss meat every day of my life. I dream about it at night. Really, I do. But, I just can't eat an animal. But if I would, it would be a corned beef special, no question.