MRM Talking With: Urban Vegan Kitchen (UVK) Co-Founder Pamela Elizabeth

To mark National Vegan Day,  Modern Restaurant Management magazine’s “Talking With” profiles Pamela Elizabeth, co-founder of  Urban Vegan Kitchen, a West Village retro restaurant that serves upscale plant-based street food in an inclusive environment designed to appeal to vegans and non-vegans alike. UVK is the latest development from the Blossom Du Jour family, New York City’s largest vegan fast-food chain.

Elizabeth opened her first vegan location in late 2005 and currently has eight eateries. For more information about Urban Vegan Kitchen, click here and follow @UrbanVeganKitchen.

What inspired you to become a vegan more than 20 years ago?
I was inspired to go vegan at the age of 17 after receiving a pamphlet in the mail from an animal organization that was talking about factory farming.  I went vegetarian on the spot, and vegan a few years thereafter. I’ve been vegan for over 20 years, and I find it completely fascinating and exciting to see how many people are beginning to gravitate towards a different, and better way of eating and living. To me, a vegan lifestyle is a liberating choice to make, especially when we understand our role and responsibility to other beings in the world.
How do you feel the cultural awareness and acceptance of vegan lifestyle has changed over that time?
There is no doubt that we as human beings can thrive on a plant-based diet.
When I went vegan 20 years ago there weren’t nearly as many vegan options available at supermarkets, and restaurants.  I would have to say that over the last 5 years, veganism has pretty much exploded.  One of our taglines at Blossom Du Jour is “Not Just Food….A Movement.  That’s truly what veganism is becoming. 
There is an enormous shift taking place where people are becoming aware of factory farming and how the foods they are choose to eat are helping or harming their bodies. There is no doubt that we as human beings can thrive on a plant-based diet. There is also no doubt that animals are abused and suffer greatly in order to produce meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Most people don’t want animals to suffer, and are starting to connect with a plant-based diet for this reason.
What are your favorite menu items?  
Pretty much the entire menu! But my absolute favorites are: the UVK Quarter Pounder, the Chick-un and Waffles, Thai Curry, the Breakfast Sandwich and the Brownie All The Way!
UVK Quarter Pounder
UVK Quarter Pounder
How does your menu and the restaurant strive to connect vegans and non-vegans alike?
We’re offering menu items that have familiar flavors and textures  (as well as flavors and textures that are unique to us!) that connect with every walk of life. Flavor isn’t compromised, it’s all about playing with the ingredients to get the right consistency… the best part is that we get to be creative! Food is art.
Guests are more conscious of the food they are eating and demanding transparency. Do you feel that dovetails with the vegan lifestyle?
Yes, absolutely. Vegan lifestyles are usually based on facts, so there’s a lot of knowledge that goes into why and what you eat. 
UVK Double Decker Tacos
UVK Double Decker Tacos
How do you define upscale city street food that happens to be vegan?  
We put an “upscale” spin on street food classics by using unique, wholesome ingredients along with fresh herbs and spices. We also make sure each dish has a beautiful pop of color and sparkle. 
How important was creating a connected experience for  your guests and why?
Extremely important.  We want people to have an experience that isn’t currently being offered at any other vegan restaurant.  It’s about introducing a space that offers delicious, cutting edge food, great drink along with a soulful vibe and essence.
UVK Chick-un Avocado Ranch Salad
UVK Chick-un Avocado Ranch Salad
What are the challenges of owning and operating a vegan restaurant?
There are many, but I would have to say one of the biggest challenges is building the right team.  This is something that takes time, sometimes years, and no restaurant can run well without it. 
UVK Lasagna
UVK Lasagna
Do you feel vegans get a bad rap as being “restrictive” and how do you build awareness of and excitement for vegan menu items?
I think a combination of ‘the unexpected’ and ‘the traditional’ is a good balance.
I think that it’s happening less and less.  The way I look at it, people who aren’t vegan are seriously missing out on creative, delicious, innovate and fun meals.  I feel like a conventional diet is restrictive because most people don’t include an array of plant-based foods that are available to them.  Vegans eat an array of grains, vegetables, mushrooms, starches, etc..  
When working on menu items I think about what I’m craving, and then what I see a large majority of people responding to that’s offered on conventional menus.  I also think about what’s not currently being offered, like our Chick-un and Waffles.  I don’t see that on menus here in nyc.  It’s about keeping the menu exciting and unique!  I think a combination of “the unexpected” and “the traditional” is a good balance. 
Are your ingredients organic? Were do you source them from?
We do work with organic ingredients, but we aren’t 100 percent organic.  We work a variety of distribution companies and farms. UVK is committed to maintaining a sustainable and plant-based lifestyle that contributes towards food education, animal rights, and lowering the world’s carbon footprint.
UVK Mexican Street Corn
UVK Mexican Street Corn
What does National Vegan Day mean to you?
To me, it means the world is changing in a positive way.  Five years ago the word “vegan” wasn’t familiar to most, but today it’s practically a household word with great meaning. World vegan day means that together, we are making and can continue to make a difference in the world for animals and our own health.