The city of Scranton, Pennsylvania might have gained quite a bit of notoriety for a little television show called "The Office," but it's also home to a cozy vegan locale called eden-a vegan cafe, open since November 2008, where the staff is probably the friendliest in the world (seriously, the second you walk in the door you're greeted with a shower of kindness) and the food is a draw for vegans and omnivores alike.
The cafe is the first and only all-vegan restaurant in Scranton, and owner Christian Pilosi recently chatted with This Dish is Veg about the ups and downs of opening a vegan restaurant in a smaller city, the joys of veg foods and the importance of cruelty-free living.
This Dish is Veg (TDIV): How did you make the decision to become vegan, and how long have you been vegan?
Christian Pilosi (CP): In early 1997, while I was in college majoring in accounting, I took a part time job as a bookkeeper at an animal shelter. I always loved animals but never made the connection between animals that are pets and animals that are on our plates. However, when I was going through the filing cabinets in what would serve as my office, I came across a PETA magazine and the first image I saw that set me on my animal rights path was that of a "dead pile" of foxes that were skinned for their fur. There were hundreds of dead, skinned foxes and it was all to make a few fur coats. I could not believe what I saw so I started to look more into things and found my way to information on factory farming and what animals experience before they become "food," and it instantly changed me. I immediately went vegetarian and after continuing to research these topics, I found that drinking cow's milk was truly unnatural & honestly, repulsive to me, so I quickly became vegan. I have now been vegan since Memorial Day 1997, a little more than 14 years.
TDIV: Did you have any trouble sticking to it at first?
CP: I didn't have any trouble sticking to it, because I came to it from an ethical standpoint, there really was no possibility of slipping. It was like in the movie "The Matrix," the red pill or the blue pill ya know? Once I knew, I could not unknow. That's not to say I knew what I was doing in the beginning. I had to learn alot about veg foods, especially since in 1997 there was so much less information out there than there is now. I remember the first meal I had after going vegetarian; it was a huge salad with a white block of tofu cut into squares and put in the salad. It was awful! That is NOT the way to eat tofu, which I have since learned, of course!
TDIV: What made you decide to open the cafe?
CP: I knew for a long time that I wanted to start my own business someday and that it would revolve around my passion for animal rights and veganism. I used to think I would open a natural foods store one day, but that changed to a restaurant when I saw there was a need for it in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area. It was definitely lacking, as I had to travel to Philadelphia or New York City to truly dine at a restaurant that had serious veg dishes. I was working in management in the insurance industry and after a while I just decided to combine my passion for cooking and animal rights with my education in business and marketing and went for it!
TDIV: What was that process like? Did you have any concerns about succeeding as a vegan business in a somewhat smaller city?
CP: I did a ton of reading about how to go about opening a restaurant, I checked into many, many storefronts in the Scranton area and I decided it had to be downtown, near the courthouse, office buildings and universities, and also because downtown Scranton is very easily accessible from major highways for travelers. I knew it was not going to be a no-brainer and it might not work, but at the same time I had to try and I was optimistic, and people came right to it from the start!
TDIV: How did you choose the menu?
CP: I had a good idea what the opening menu would look like, traditional comfort lunch food "veganized," because if anything vegan was going to work in Scranton it had to look, feel and taste familiar and not be foreign to who would be our customers. I have been working in restaurants on and off since high school so I had lots of experience with short order lunch food, and since I have been vegan since 1997, I had lots of experience making all those wonderful lunch foods vegan for myself. I always say, I didn't stop eating meat because I didn't like the taste, and that's why eden has Turkey Clubs, Meatball Subs, Steak & Cheese Subs, Chicken Cheesesteaks, Chili Cheeseburgers, and many more items just like that, but all vegan!
TDIV: Why was it important to you to include veganized versions of traditional meat dishes on your menu?
CP: As I just touched upon, if we opened in the area that we are in with items such as "Gluten Steak," "Seitan Cutlet" and "Tempeh Reuben" we would confuse and alienate the people of this area and we didn't want to do that. We wanted to be here for those who are vegan or vegetarian of course, but we also wanted to be here to show those who are not that eating this way doesn't have to be a sacrifice. Truth be told, all you are really giving up when eating our vegan food is cholesterol, saturated fat and extra calories!
TDIV: What dish do you most recommend?
CP: Our most popular dishes, especially for those who are not familiar with vegan food, are the Turkey Club, Meatball Sub, and most recently, our Old Forge Style Pizza & 9" Round Personal Pizza Creations.
TDIV: What product or item is indispensable in your kitchen?
CP: The first item that comes to mind is Vegenaise! It's eggless mayonnaise and it is soooo good! Most of our customers can't get enough of it on our clubs, burgers & sandwiches!
TDIV: There are so many ways to approach animal activism and veganism. Some people choose to be more forward with information about the current agricultural environment, while others let the deliciousness of vegan food speak for itself. What is your approach?
CP: We sure do let the deliciousness of our vegan food speak for itself, but we also have booklets such as "Why Vegan?" & "Guide to Cruelty-Free Living" on hand, as well as others, that customers are welcome to look through or take with them if they so choose. We keep books on hand such as "The China Study" and others that we lend out to customers as well if they are interested in learning more. I answer several emails a week from customers who are looking for advice on how to eat better or to take part in doing better for the environment or the animals. It is all encompassing and we are glad to be here as a resource to offer advice or help in any way that we can.
TDIV: Have any advice for other vegan entrepreneurs?
CP: I have to say, the difference from 1997 to now in the knowledge the general public has about vegan food and animal rights issues is astounding. It is no longer a fringe thing, it is out there in the mainstream now. The availability of veg foods and products, the awareness of issues relating to factory farming, animal welfare and the environment, it's just everywhere now. I don't believe our restaurant would be successful if it were 10 years ago, maybe not even five years ago, but now, people are looking for what we have to offer. I say go for it, use social media and guerrilla marketing to get the word out on a budget, create a friendly atmosphere and a great product, and let the positive word of mouth work for you like it works for us!
TDIV: What misnomer about veganism do you wish would be proven wrong once and for all?CP: The first one that comes to mind is that silly question, "Where do you get your protein?" It's so uninformed, and those who ask usually don't know where protein comes from at all, they just think it only comes from animal flesh and secretions, and it's simply not true. Protein comes from all sorts of beans, legumes and vegetables, and it's a clean protein. Animal protein is not good for you and the standard American diet consumes it in excess. Another one is that vegans are pasty wimps, and let me tell you, that it not the case at all! Tony Horton of P90X fame is 99% vegan, several MMA fighters recently have gone vegan for training and Mike Tyson is vegan!
TDIV: Anything else you want to add?
CP: I would just encourage people to research it on their own. All the information you need is out there on the internet, at your fingertips whenever you want it, so go get it and make informed decisions! Don't listen to anyone tell you how it should be, they probably don't know and are just repeating what they heard somewhere in the past. Be active in your own health, be empowered and don't be afraid to try new things, it's the only way we evolve! :-)
For more information on eden-a vegan cafe, visit http://www.facebook.com/edenavegancafe. And if you should find yourself in Northeastern Pennsylvania, drop in at 344 Adams Ave., Scranton.
Photo credit: eden-a vegan cafe