Napalm Death blasts from the Grindcore House speakers as co-owners Mike Barone and David Anthem drink coffee underneath portraits of anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Voltairine de Cleyre.
Grindcore House opened in August in a space that used to be a butcher shop in the early 1900s, and is one of two vegan- and locally owned establishments that opened here in 2010. Grindcore, along with Blackbird Pizzeria, have given the cheesesteak capital a hardcore seitan push.
In late 2009, Barone was working as a freelance web engineer and software designer; Anthem was completing his masters in Library & Information Science at Drexel and dreading the dismal job market. Both had been heavily involved in radical politics and animal-rights activism for years, and began seriously considering opening their own coffee shop: a task infinitely more challenging given their ethical commitments.
“We debated if we could financially maintain an all-vegan place or if we should compromise our beliefs and go into work everyday to look at fucking milk in the fridge,” Anthem says. “We finally decided that an all-vegan establishment was the only option regardless of whether it did well or not. We said that if it tanks in six months so be it, but at least we’d have our principles intact.”
Serving up Goshen coffee with soy, coconut and almond milks, sandwiches and bagels with a variety of spreads, and cakes, cookies and brownies made by independent, local vegan bakers, Grindcore House sits a few blocks from the owners’ homes in the Pennsport neighborhood of South Philly. But with its lending library stocked with radical literature, and with frequent film, art, music and book events, Grindcore was never meant to be just a vegan coffee shop.
“The last thing we wanted was to open another fucking bourgie coffee shop,” Barone says. “This will evolve into a more legitimate community space where unpredictable things happen and new ideas form.”
Overhearing Barone’s vision, customer Jennifer Giordano confirms that a small battle had already been won. “I come here almost every morning,” she says, “but as far as being vegan, I just can’t go there yet, but this is a step, this is definitely a step.”
About 10 blocks north, lunch customers at Blackbird Pizzeria are greeted by Earth Crisis booming through the soundsystem.
“We don’t always have vegan straight-edge hardcore on, but we do today,” chef Mark Mebus says from behind the counter as he serves up slices of seitan pepperoni and the already famous potato pie.
Mebus and co-owner Ryan Moylan had entertained the idea of opening a vegan pizzeria since 2005, and when they got a call in May from long-time friend Anthem about the former Gianna’s Grille space being on the market, they jumped at the opportunity. They opened five months later.
Moylan was working as a freelance flash developer; Mebus was in his third year as line cook for Philadelphia’s vegan mecca, Horizons. A graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, Mebus began experimenting with vegan pizzas after his shifts at Blossom, a reputable New York City vegan spot. Despite his background, he and Moylan prioritized creating a vegan restaurant with proletarian appeal.
“Many vegan restaurants today are upscale places that don’t do much for the common person,” Mebus says. “To bring veganism to the masses, it’s important to have pedestrian-friendly establishments so it’s more easily brought into people’s lives.”
Their most popular item is the seitan cheesesteak sandwich: a potentially blasphemous concept for many Philadelphians. But Mebus and Moylan are confident that their product will win people over even if their ethics don’t.
“Philly’s identity is tough and meaty, but there’s a growing community that’s more conscious and interested in veganism,” Moylan says optimistically. “We’re inherently challenging our customers to think,” Mebus continues, “but whether they take on our ideals or not is up to them. We won’t shove our political viewpoints down anyone’s throats. We’re first and foremost about serving quality food.”
While food comes first at Blackbird, it’s inseparable from their unwavering vegan principles. Along with Grindcore House, they represent an ethics-driven business model that sets them apart from nonvegan-owned vegan restaurants. “A nonvegan running a vegan restaurant makes a purely financial decision, but vegan-run businesses are better because there’s more of a vested interest. And, besides, nonvegan-run restaurants don’t play Earth Crisis,” Mebus says smiling.
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