Blackbird Pizzeria, an all vegan pizza and sandwich shop, just opened its doors two weekends ago at 507 South Sixth Street. Serving up slices topped with Daiya “cheese” and meatless seitan cheesesteaks, the place has drawn a steady flow of hungry customers over the last couple weeks.
I sat down to talk with Mark Mebus, the chef and co-owner of the new South Philly pizzeria, who launched the restaurant along with partner Ryan Moylan.
How long have you been vegan?
I’ve been vegan for 12 years. Basically, I was into hardcore music and a lot of the bands I was listening to at the time were talking about animal rights and things along those lines. And then some of my friends were also into [those areas]. I just started thinking about where food comes from and a couple of other topics dealing with animal rights, and that’s basically what got the ball rolling. I was listening to all this music, and reading these pamphlets, and realized this is what those bands I listened to were talking about. I put two and two together, and made the change for me.
That’s interesting. Were you first a vegetarian, or did you go straight into veganism?
I was vegetarian for about 3 months, just as a transitioning period. Growing up, I had a pretty regular American family with pot roasts every Sunday and things like that. My mom was like, “What are you doing?” when I went vegan. But it was just the more information I got that the farther I started to go into vegetarianism and then into veganism.
How does your family feel about it now?
They’re not vegan, but they try to eat as healthy as they can. It was really only at first that they thought I was weird. Once they started looking into it and looking at all the various benefits besides from just moral standings, they got more supportive of it.
Did you grow up in Philly? Well, in Bucks County.
I know that you previously worked at Horizons. When did you leave the restaurant and head up to New York?
A little over two years ago. I was in New York first. I found people up there that will do a vegan culinary program, so I went up there and did that, and then I worked at Camel 79 for about a year. Then I moved down to Philly again and worked at Horizons for about a year. A good friend of mine was a general manger at a restaurant called Blossoms, so he wanted to hire me for the chef position up there, so I went back to New York for two years.
What prompted you to make the move back to Philly?
I wanted to own my own business. And my daughter lives down here. I was coming back weekly when I lived in New York to spend time with my daughter anyway. This opportunity came up, and I was always kind of interested in opening a pizza and sandwich type kind of place. I knew if I was doing my own business I wanted to do something a little more casual and a little more of a pedestrian-friendly situation.
What gave you the idea specifically to do an all-vegan pizzeria?
I was actually a customer at Gianna’s way back before the “cheese scandal” happened. And it was kind of a place that I liked a lot. I liked the atmosphere of a pizza shop. At Blossoms when I was working, I really liked messing around with dough and enjoyed making pizza a lot, so I figured I should open a pizzeria. I was looking in New York for a little while, but this place just kind of fell on my lap so I decided to come down here [to Philly].
I’ve tried a lot of different vegan cheeses, and eh, most of them aren’t so great. Daiya seems to work pretty well though. Do you think it’s the best vegan cheese out there?
Yeah, I think so. To tell you the truth, I don’t personally care for soy cheese at all. At every other place that I worked, we really tried to shy away from using soy cheese all together because it really doesn’t taste all that good. They actually sent me samples of Daiya at Blossoms a year and a half ago, and I got a preview of it. When I was talking to the guy from Daiya, I found out the company pretty much designed the cheese for pizza. And I like that it’s not soy based. I know a lot of people have problems with soy, and this is much more allergy–friendly. It’s a mix of tapioca and casaba root flour as well as arrowroot, mixed with a few other ingredients, and then cultured. Also, on a side note, the guy who created Diaya wasn’t even a foodie or anything. He was an inventor who just decided to tackle the vegan cheese problem.
Are there any efforts at Blackbird to go organic or to use locally-sourced ingredients?
I actually originally intended to have a really strong focus on both of those things. From a price standpoint, going organic seems to be almost an impossibility. The sauce is actually organic. The tomatoes I use are all organic. With nonorganic tomatoes, they tend to put a lot of junk into the canned tomatoes. I personally prefer more simple ingredients. As far as getting things locally sourced, I want to do that as much as I possibly can. Right now getting started, I’m pretty much getting almost all my produce from a produce supplier, and they do offer a lot of local things, but I plan on contacting more of the local farms around and trying to see what I can do. Sometimes it can be difficult on a price standpoint, but I do personally think it’s important to support local business in general, especially farms. I would like to do that as much as I possibly can.
I see that you’re also trying to take a green approach for take home and delivery boxes with the use of the “Green Boxes.” Can you tell me a little more about that?
It’s a box that actually divides into plates. The top divides into four plates and then the bottom refolds into a storage container. It’s made from 100% recycled cardboard. It makes it so there’s less waste with less paper plates needed.
Last time I was at Blackbird, you offered the BBQ Portabella and the Seitan Cheesesteak. They were both really great, but are there any other sandwich creations in the works?
I was actually hoping to be at our full menu already, but we’ve got a little backed up. There will be a menu with about 5 or 6 sandwiches, and probably about 3 salads and a couple sides. It is going to be more extensive than it is now, but I won’t go too crazy with options because I prefer to focus on quality rather than quantity. Eventually I do want to start doing some specials just to keep it interesting for myself and for the customers. Within the next week or two, when we get a few staff members, I’ll be able to expand the menu more fully.
Are the cakes homemade as well?
The cakes are actually from Vegan Treats in Bethlehem. She sells to probably 50 different places in New York and a bunch of places down here, so she does quite a business. Being able to bake is a pretty time consuming thing, so I might make some things in house after a little while, but for the most part most of the desserts will be ordered out.
How’d you decide on using Gianna’s old place to situate your restaurant?
We saw that it was for sale, and I felt as though it was the best scenario possible. It was a place that people involved in the nitch of vegan and vegetarianism already knew was there because they were selling a lot of vegan products. Also, within the world of veganism it was kind of a notorious place because there was an issue awhile ago of them saying things were vegan when they weren’t. So in some ways, I think a lot of people are happy that it’s an actual all vegan establishment where they don’t have to worry about the authenticity of the food.
What’s your target crowd? Are you intentionally trying to cater to both vegans and non-vegans?
Really my target crowd is whoever wants to eat the food. I don’t like closing anything off from anyone. I’d like to be as community involved as possible. It’s not the kind of place where I only want it to be vegans and vegetarians. I want it to be a pizza and sandwich place first, and a vegan place second. Obviously the morals of the place are really important to me, but I would hope that whoever comes in from the neighborhood, whether a meat-eater or not, would be able to enjoy the product.
Do you have a personal favorite item on the menu?
Well right now it’s this potato pizza I’ve been doing with Yukon Gold potatoes along with rosemary, sea salt and olive oil.
That sounds delicious.
Personally I’m really into vegetables. My background with Horizons and Blossoms is you know, kind of with fancier restaurants. So I do kind of nerd out over ingredients and vegetables. For me personally, having a pepperoni slice is something I wouldn’t get. I’m more into using vegetables and experimenting with interesting applications. Those are things I’m a little more drawn to, but I want to make the place good for everyone.