It takes a village to build a city’s meatless community. Before the locally renowned Blackbird Pizzeria opened in 2010, there was just a handful of places for adequate meatless meals in Philadelphia, not all of which were strictly vegan: Govinda’s Vegetarian, Horizons (the precursor to Washington Square West’s Vedge), Kingdom of Vegetarians, Gianna's Grille, the Nile Cafe, Singapore, Harmony, and others in Chinatown.
Just over half a decade later, there are now over 20 different vegan and vegetarian restaurants. In 2012, Nicole Marquis founded local plant-based fast-food chain, HipCityVeg. Horizons chef-owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby opened Vedge in fall 2011, then V-Street in 2014, and Wiz Kid in 2016.
Whether it’s pho, corn dogs or cheesesteaks, it’s now possible to find the vegan version of it somewhere in the city. This comes as no coincidence. Today, in addition to classic pies, Blackbird offers a wide variety of wings, sandwiches (including a cheesesteak) that have been voted the best in town, salads, baked goods, and even calzones (all vegan).
Community was a huge factor in Blackbird getting started. For instance, about a dozen years ago, Blackbird co-owner and chef Mark Mebus met Mike Barone through a group of vegan, straightedge friends (Barone would later start vegan coffeehouse Grindcore House). It was Barone that pointed out a listing for vacant space, which Blackbird would later turn into their Chestnut Hill storefront. Mebus also notes that Blackbird could never have happened if Barone had not pursued his a business of his own.
“It was Mike looking into opening Grindcore House that brought us to finding Blackbirds location,” Mebus added. “So without him doing Grindcore, Blackbird may not have ever happened.”
Barone’s business started on a similar note. After moving to Pennsport, he noticed there wasn’t a close coffee shop. During one afternoon’s falafel run, he and a friend checked out a vacant corner store. In that moment, Grindcore House then transformed from a “wouldn't-it-be-cool-if idea” to more of a “holy-shit-we're-doing-this-thing” one.
Plus, Barone wanted to combine his interests of veganism, music, and anti-authoritarianism into his own establishment. In the backroom, there’s a radical library filled with titles about animal liberation, environmentalism, anarchism, and other leftist topics that customers are free to check out. And just like the name suggests, you can expect to hear the restaurant’s authentic grindcore soundtrack playing in the background all day long.
“I know I may sound biased because he is first and foremost a friend, but it would be difficult to find someone who has mastered their craft more than Mark,” Barone explains. “In addition to raising the bar for restaurants, vegan or otherwise, countless people have benefited from his willingness to share those skills and know-how.”
Blackbird’s concept not only comes from the lack of options in town, but also from Mark Mebus’s passion for pizza. It helped that he has a background working in the vegan food industry at Blossom in New York City, as well as Horizons.
Using his expertise in graphic design, business partner Ryan Moylan chipped in by creating the eatery’s website. However, Mebus said he runs most of the business’s operations these days.
Beyond just being a vegan pizzeria, Blackbird has trained employees into tailored vegan cooks, taking their skills with all things meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free with them wherever they go. For instance, former managers Matt Quinn and Jeff Poleon founded Dottie’s Donuts in 2016, an all-vegan donut shop located in West Philadelphia off Baltimore Avenue.
However, like every veg scene, there is room for improvement.
“I would like to see the vegan food scene in Philly to continue to be more diverse as well, Mebus added. “I think there is a need for more mid level restaurants that are somewhat casual but still full service.”
Even if there could be more meatless full-service alternatives, what’s clear is that now, more than ever, there’s no shortage of excellent vegan-friendly eateries in Philly — even if you’re an omnivore.