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Vegan-friendly businesses ‘expand the circle of compassion’ in Lancaster

To view the original post by Vance Lehmkuhl on philly.com, click here.

Development chief Ross Martin-Wells (left) and head chef Rafaed Pozzi of Lancaster's Rijuice show off some of the company's "life in a bottle." ((Vance Lehmkuhl / Staff))
Development chief Ross Martin-Wells (left) and head chef Rafaed Pozzi of Lancaster’s Rijuice show off some of the company’s “life in a bottle.” 

WITH ITS CHARMING contrast of redbrick buildings and white cherry-tree blossoms, Lancaster is a beautiful place to be right now. It’s also an exciting place for those interested in animal-free foods.

This traditionally meat-and-dairy-based region is now on the vegan-friendly map, thanks to some forward-looking companies and a growing demand for their foods.

Recently, I checked in with four such businesses while noting other vegan options (see sidebar) for Philadelphians who might want to venture west for a day or weekend. And there was a common thread of looking beyond the plate to the health of the larger community.

This was no surprise at our first stop, The Seed (52 N. Queen St.), a worker-owned “Community Space / Vege Cafe” founded in 2012 in the aftermath of Occupy Lancaster.

“Organizers didn’t have a safe space that was progressively minded,” explained Drew Garza, who was working the counter when I stopped in. “Lancaster didn’t really have much in the way of vegan and vegetarian options.”

The Seed hosts music and arts events and get-togethers of like-minded groups, serving as what Garza calls “a progressively minded community for traditionally marginalized folks. Our goal is to expand the circle of compassion.”

Though there are some menu items with eggs or dairy, “everything . . . can be made vegan.”

As a worker-owned collective, The Seed is “anti-profit,” a phrase on its table cards. So what happens with surplus income? “Everyone has an equal share in what we do,” said Garza. “Then we fold any operating profits back into the space and into the community.”

Profits and options

Across town at Lancaster Food Co. (341 Liberty St.), cofounder Craig Lauer struck a seemingly different note: “We’re a for-profit company. We are out to gain market share.”

The company’s product line is breads but includes maple syrups and seasonal spreads, including seed butters and jams. All ingredients are certified organic, and, Lauer said, “We didn’t feel a compelling need for dairy or eggs,” so those are excluded “not from a philosophical point of view, but to give people options.”

Giving people options is the flip side of the for-profit comment, as the company pays entry-level employees $14 an hour and has a commitment to get “returning citizens,” or ex-offenders, back into the workforce.

COO Polly Lauer, Craig’s wife, said she recruits from agencies that provide “job-readiness training to people reentering mainstream employment.” A large part of the two-year-old company’s mission is to “hire people out of poverty into thriving-wage jobs.” Company cofounder and CEO Charlie Crystle, a livable-wage crusader, was a guest at Gov. Wolf’s March 7 signing of the executive order to raise the statewide minimum wage by nearly $3 an hour. There’s also an employee stock-ownership plan.

Juicing the system

While LFC concentrates on putting bread into people’s hands, a nearby outfit works to juice the system with locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Rijuice (rijuice.com) packs a pound of Lancaster County produce into each 8-ounce bottle for a tasty nutrition boost pitched as “life in a bottle.”

“We want to make this area the Silicon Valley of food,” said development chief Ross Martin-Wells. Rijuice supplements its regular line of six flavor combinations with specials keyed to local, seasonal produce. Rijuice produces both raw and high-pressure-pasteurized drinks, which allows wholesale and retail distribution.

Martin-Wells described a business model with three pillars: supporting small-scale family farms, training people reentering the workforce to work, and getting the vitamin-packed juices to people in underserved communities.

“It’s definitely a social-enterprise mission,” he said, adding that the company aims to “drive as many jobs as possible” via partnerships with organizations such as the Lancaster County Re-entry Management Organization and Assets Lancaster.

Rijuice is currently available in 38 locations, including Lancaster’s Central Market and Green Aisle Groceries in Philadelphia. Martin-Wells said Rijuice founder Cullen Farrell was scouting Philly for a potential storefront – and the team is open to suggestions from Philadelphians.

The vegan pub

Just a few blocks from Rijuice, another kind of drinking establishment is garnering local buzz – a newly opened vegan (December 2015) bar and grill called Root (223 W. Walnut St.).

Owner Rob Garpstas “saw a need for a place like this” in Lancaster. “You had The Seed, but they don’t have a liquor license.”

After going vegan six years ago at his daughter’s behest, Garpstas deployed his skills as a chef and restaurant entrepreneur to open the laid-back, no-frills watering hole with “pub-style food,” beers, and wines that are animal-free.

The food is familiar but with some interesting spins. The maple-glazed tofu with bok choy was good, and the off-kilter banh mi pizza worked, especially when paired with a nice red vegan wine. (Aren’t all beers and wines vegan, you ask? No. Some are clarified with ingredients made from fish bladders or other animal products. Guinness just made headlines by announcing it is dropping the practice and will soon be a vegan product.)

“We’ve gotten a big response, better than we expected” general manager Chase Peterson said.

In a Philly-friendly move, next week’s menu (new items are swapped in every month or so) will introduce a vegan cheesesteak.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 15-year vegan. “V for Veg” chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia.  VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.