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When Nicole Marquis’ father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2009, she helped him adopt a plant-based diet to improve his health.
Marquis made him the smoothies and dishes she made for herself as a vegan and watched as he enjoyed the meals with surprise. After years of telling her father to change his eating habits, it wasn’t until she showed him how versatile plant-based food could be that he changed his ways.
Marquis, a Bizwomen Headliner, is the owner of plant-based fast-casual restaurant chain HipCityVeg, which has three locations in Philadelphia and one in Washington, D.C. She opened the first restaurant in 2012 after learning a lesson with her father — she could expand the perception of vegan food if she showed people how hearty it could be. HipCityVeg serves salads, chicken sandwiches and burgers made with ingredients such as soy and grains in place of meat.
In addition to HipCityVeg, Marquis, 35, is the owner of two other Philadelphia restaurants, Latin-inspired vegan eatery Bar Bombon and cocktail lounge Charlie Was a Sinner. Bar Bombon draws from Marquis’ Puerto Rican heritage and her mom, who grew up in San Juan, would visit the restaurant during its early days to ensure dishes were made correctly.
Marquis doesn’t plan to open more iterations of Bar Bombon or Charlie Was a Sinner, but she hopes to expand HipCityVeg to New York, Boston and Chicago in the future. (Interview edited for brevity and clarity.)
What was it like to open a plant-based restaurant in Philadelphia?
Everyone looked at me like I was crazy for opening a vegan restaurant in the cheesesteak capital. I just knew there was this pent-up demand and people wanted a different way of eating. And we were right. The day we opened the doors, we sold out by 1 p.m. Day two, I bought double the food and we sold out by 2 p.m. That went on for a whole week until I could finally get an understanding of the volume we were dealing with.
Our menu is simple, fast-food inspired items with fresh, local and organic produce and ingredients. We really focus on classic American flavors, like a crispy chicken sandwich, juicy burger, sweet potato fries and things that people are really familiar with. I think that’s a huge key to our success.
What is your personal connection to veganism?
I became vegan in 2008. I was inspired to turn vegan after reading The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. My whole life transformed. I realized what I eat not only affects my health but affects the environment I live in and other living things.
It was hard to eat out because I always had to look at the menu and eat the sides. I had to order the side of broccoli and potato and carrots and make a meal because in 2008 the options were very limited. Even though it was challenging, I felt so good by making the change.
How did the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets affect the business?
It brought out more competition, but competition is always healthy. And with that, it brought out more awareness. A segment of the market that would never think of going into a place with ‘veg’ in the name now has a greater awareness. Part of the mission originally was to help debunk the myth that vegan food is just rabbit food or sprouts. I think that is happening now everywhere.
What are some vegetarian trends you’ve seen recently?
I’ve noticed a lot of different meat substitutes are coming on the market. You have the bleeding burger, the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Meat burger. For cheese, they’re using potato protein rather than pea protein. There’s a lot going on in that segment. I’m excited to see what else is out there and what more is to come because that is important for people to feel satisfied with texture and substance.
Numbers at a glance:
HipCityVeg locations: 4
Size of flagship location in Philadelphia: 8 seats; 700 sq. ft.
Size of largest location in Philadelphia: 40 seats; 1600 sq. ft.
HipCityVeg’s top three bestsellers: Green smoothie, Crispy HipCity Ranch, French fries