Rooted in Chelsea, a Vegan Business Model Blossoms
BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC
Pamela Elizabeth is one busy restaurateur.
Last month alone, two new vegan restaurants — one fast food and one an upscale sit-down — opened on the Upper West Side, expanding an empire that began nine years ago in Chelsea.
Elizabeth and her business partner, Ronen Seri, opened their first vegan eatery, Blossom Restaurant on Ninth Ave. (btw. W. 21st & W. 22nd Sts.) on Oct. 22, 2005.
Elizabeth immediately remembered the month, day and year her first restaurant opened and the whirlwind that engulfed her.
“Did we make the right decision? Is it going to succeed? Are people really going to love the food?” said Elizabeth in an interview with Chelsea Now at her latest restaurant, Blossom (at 507 Columbus Ave., btw. W. 84th & W. 85th Sts.).
Elizabeth and Seri ran a natural pet and supply store called The Barking Zoo, which they then sold (it’s still in business, on Ninth Ave., btw. 20th & 21st Sts.). The Bronx native had been a vegetarian since she was 17, and then turned vegan.
“I always wanted to do something to help animals or to bring an awareness to people that animals should be noticed and have feelings and should be treated right,” she said. “I thought of opening a very small vegan cafe — you know maybe just two or four tables.”
Growing up, Elizabeth had no ambitions to be a business owner. She was interested instead in the arts — especially opera, which she still sings (“Othello” is one of her favorites).
But, at that time in 2005, there was such a dearth of options for vegans, especially when it came to high-end choices, and she wanted somehow to fill that void somehow.
She and Seri were scouting for space, and happened upon a “For Rent” sign in the window on Ninth Ave., she recalled. At that time, it was an Italian restaurant, dismal inside and with the owner living upstairs.
“But you could see it had potential — it’s just an adorable little intimate townhouse,” she said, and “that idea of a little cafe just turned into a restaurant because we found the space.”
Blossom Restaurant opened three months later.
“That was probably the craziest time of my life,” Elizabeth said. “I had no idea what I was getting into. The restaurant business has got to be one of the hardest businesses in the world.”
Blossom Restaurant’s menu includes one of Elizabeth’s favorite dishes: port wine seitan with white mushrooms, tempura onion, garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. Although Elizabeth doesn’t drink alcohol, she loves the plate. Other customer favorites, she said, are the seitan scallopini in a white wine, lemon and caper sauce, and the black eyed pea cake, which is Yukon gold potatoes and black eyed peas served with a chipotle aioli.
After the success of Blossom Restaurant, Elizabeth and Seri quickly made the move to grow, opening Cafe Blossom two years later on the Upper West Side. It recently closed because of a lease issue.
“It was a thriving business,” she said. “Our customers were crying, it was really intense.”
The newly opened Blossom Restaurant is not far from that closed restaurant, which was at 466 Columbus Ave.
Next Cocoa V, a vegan chocolate and desert and wine bar, opened in 2009 on Ninth Ave. in Chelsea, but has since closed.
“I can’t even talk about Cocoa V,” said Elizabeth. “I loved Cocoa V so much. I still dream about that reopening, and maybe it will one day.”
Thinking that the Cocoa V space would serve better as a bakery, Elizabeth converted the former wine and dessert bar into Blossom Bakery in 2012. Elizabeth said there is a high demand for vegan baked goods. As of now, however, that space is being used to fulfill wholesale orders and is not open to the public.
“I go back and forth about moving our wholesale production out of that space and reopening as a full-fledged bakery,” she said.
Whole Foods throughout the city — the Chelsea, Union Square and Columbus Circle locations — carry four of Elizabeth’s items: biscotti, brownies, chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal harvest cookies.
“They all do very well,” she said. “We want to expand that line of baked goods.”
A frozen vegan pot pie is also in the works, and there is talk with Whole Foods of expanding to more stores — and perhaps even taking the products nationally.
“That’s taking things to a whole other level,” said Elizabeth. “That’s very exciting to me because we’re going to be able to reach so many more people.”
Seri and Elizabeth are co-owners of the three restaurants, including Blossom on Carmine in the West Village, which opened in April of 2012. (Seri owns the vegan bistro V-Note, at 1522 First Ave. btw. E. 79th & E. 80th Sts.).
But in 2010, when Elizabeth opened her first quick-service Blossom du Jour (BDJ) in Chelsea (also on Ninth Ave.), she did it on her own. It has since moved to W. 23rd St. (btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves), as Elizabeth wanted a larger space and more centralized location.
Shrewd. Fast. Food. With that motto, Elizabeth has taken the all-American concept of food in a hurry and made it both healthy and vegan.
“I’ve wanted for a long time to introduce vegan fast food,” said Elizabeth. “I would look at Hale and Hearty and how they would have sandwiches and soups and salads and I would think ‘why can’t this work with all the food options being vegan?’ Of course, it can.”
The fourth BDJ opened on the Upper West Side (449 Amsterdam Ave. btw. W. 81st & W. 82 Sts.) in September, and a fifth location is already on the horizon.
“People want this food on the go — especially in cities.”
The slogan “Shrewd. Fast. Food.” came about because its “food for the discerning person. The person who wants to eat better for whatever reason. I don’t want to say anything about what other fast food companies are doing. But we all know what the food is,” said Elizabeth.
BDJ offers sandwiches, wraps, salads, desserts, smoothies and juices — all vegan, some also gluten-free. Two of the most popular items, said Elizabeth, are the Midtown Melt — Cajun spicy seitan with v-cheese, agave, guacamole, lettuce and chipotle aioli — and The Skyscraper, a vegan burger with all the fixings.
Elizabeth said that she hopes to have 10-12 BDJs in New York City, and then expand outside to college towns, where a lot of young people are vegetarian or, at least, open to the type of cuisine.
“It’s always been about animals for me, not about health. I know that a vegan diet is a healthy diet, but it’s always been about animals for me,” said Elizabeth.
At one time, proceeds from Cocoa V went to an animal rescue organization. Now, people who have a Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary card get 15 percent off at any Blossom establishment. Promotions are run at BDJ, where when a particular sandwich is purchased, a dollar will go to the farm. For a three-month promotion during the summer, $2,700 was donated.
Elizabeth lived in Chelsea for 17 years, but recently moved to the Upper West Side.
“It’s probably the most grounded place in New York City, people are really down to earth,” said Elizabeth, who still considers Chelsea her base. “It’s a different energy and I think that the restaurant has benefited from that.”
But it took a little time for the neighborhood to adjust, she recalled.
“When we first opened there was a little backlash there. We’d get the person calling and saying, ‘Oh, can you deliver a steak to my address?’ ” she said. “Crazy stuff like that. That doesn’t happen anymore. It took awhile for people to get used to what we were doing.”
It was a different time then, and Elizabeth said she is aware how sensitive the subject of what people eat is.
“It’s a very personal thing and people don’t want to feel like they’re being pushed or told and that’s not our intention at all. The intention is just to offer delicious food. It happens to be vegan,” she said.
At Blossom, people are encouraged to fill out comment cards that ask if they are vegan or vegetarian. Elizabeth said that they have found that 65 to 70 percent of their patrons are not vegans or vegetarians but people who eat meat.
“We’re definitely a destination restaurant since we’re on Ninth Avenue. We’re not on Eighth, we’re not on Seventh, where it’s bustling,” said Elizabeth, with clientele coming from all over. “People do have to seek us out.”
The landscape has changed since the first Blossom Restaurant opened and now, there are many more vegan offerings.
“Everyone recognizes the word vegan today. It’s not like a couple years ago, five years ago, six years ago: ‘What’s that?’ Today everybody knows,” she said. “They might not know a vegan. They might not be vegan, but they know what that word means. That’s a tremendous step forward.”
Elizabeth said that Blossom has built a reputation, and people who do want to eat healthy seek out her restaurants.
She attributes some of her success to this trend toward healthy eating and the team that she works with.
She also credits her passion for what she does. “I feel like that everyday before I go to bed and when I wake up. I know how hard it is [but] it just means the world to me to put this kind of food out there. You can’t be afraid to try to move forward. That’s a big thing. You have to take risks.”