Nicole Marquis, the founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based chainlet HipCityVeg, is on a mission to make vegan food convenient, affordable, and approachable for everyone. She also hopes her business—which she opened in 2012 and now includes eight restaurants, with at least six more opening soon—becomes the “Shake Shack of Plant-Based Food.”
But when she started down this path, it was personal. “I moved home with my parents,” Marquis told Gothamist last week, “my dad was in his 50s, he had diabetes, he had high blood pressure, he was on all types of medication, and I said ‘Papi, you need to eat more vegetables and fruits.’ He’s a meat-and-potatoes guy, but I made him a green smoothie, the same one we sell here today–spinach, pineapple, banana, apple–and he was amazed that he could enjoy so much spinach in a cup. For him that was incredible.”
Two months of plant-based eating later and “what happened to his health was remarkable. He lost 25 pounds, got off all of his high blood pressure medication, and put his Type 2 Diabetes into remission. It was a miracle,” said Marquis. “And I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring this to everyone.’ Like my dad, though, most people won’t change their eating habits unless it’s easy. So I knew I had to fill the HipCityVeg menu with familiar food, comfort food, delicious food, so that people would want it and love it.”
Judging by the huge crowd that turned East 12th Street into a vegan-eating party during HipCityVeg’s opening day last Thursday–at one point the line ran all the way over to Fifth Avenue–it seems Marquis has succeeded. This is the first New York City branch of her hit mini-chain, which also has five restaurants in her native Philadelphia, and two in Washington DC—she plans to “double the size of the company in the next six months,” and is also about to launch a series of “small delivery kitchens” throughout NYC to widen her reach.
If it all seems like a lot of activity and excitement for a 700 square-foot vegan burger stand–one woman among the thousands who came on opening day told me she had driven to Philadelphia three times in the past year just to eat at HipCityVeg, so was thrilled that she could now get her fix locally–you should know that Marquis backs up her ebullience and ambition with some terrific food.
The Union Square HipCityVeg may be tiny, but the menu is impressively extensive. Marquis uses Beyond Meat for her burgers and cheesesteak, and loads everything up with fresh veggie toppings and lively sauces. The wholly satisfying Ziggy Burger adds crisp, smoky tempeh bac’n to the mix, the popular Smokehouse Burger is sloppy with BBQ sauce, and the Philly Steak gets good and gloppy with melted mozza cheese and a slathering of ketchup.
The best thing here might be the well-seasoned Crispy HipCity Ranch Chick’n sandwich, which nails the crackling/juicy texture of great fried chicken, throws on some pickles for a hit of acid and a generous blob of peppercorn ranch to make things messy. You can also get your chick’n in one of two wraps, or as a six-pack of nuggets with dipping sauce. And I didn’t notice the Buffalo Bella, which can be made with chick’n or portabella, until after I had placed my order, but given how big-flavored everything else here, I’m now intrigued to see how fiery they make it.