by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
Oh, and all three of her restaurants are vegan.
Charlie Was A Sinner sits unassumingly on what is now a mini restaurant row at the corner of 13th Street and Sansom in Center City Philadelphia. It’s a few doors down from the tricked-out interior and bright colors of Stephen Starr’s El Vez, and inside, the lights are dim and the music is tasteful and low, but it’s still buzzing with staff and customers in a happy hour state of mind. Some are sipping on a custom menu of cocktails and ordering small plates at the bar. Others are wondering how long it will be until a table is available in the back dining room, where a black and white movie flickers over heavy drapes above the heads of early diners.
Nicole Marquis knows how to put on a show. After graduating from Temple University with a degree in Communications and Theatre, she attended graduate school at California Institute of the Arts to study Shakespeare and Classical Drama. So, how exactly did a theatre kid from Philadelphia’s suburbs become a restaurateur with intentions of taking her vegan empire national?
While she was studying the Bard, the long time vegetarian was also ruminating on nutrition books. While she didn’t know it at the time, she had started down the path to becoming a vegan, a choice she made initially for health reasons seven years ago. Her father also made the change, and two months after adopting a plant-based diet, Marquis says, “[he] lost 35 pounds, he got off of his blood pressure medication, and he completely reversed his type-two diabetes.” It was a dramatic turn of events; her mother followed suit and found relief for her arthritis. “Thanksgiving is my holiday,” she says. “I used to cringe at the thought of all the turkey… Now holidays are awesome, because I can eat everything!”
Starting Hip City Veg was partially an outcome of her diet change, but it was also driven by Marquis’ post-grad search for meaning. Instead of asking herself, “What am I going to do with my life?” Marquis pondered a different question: “What can I do to have the greatest effect on the world?” That was when the idea started taking shape for Hip City Veg, a fast casual restaurant that offered delicious food for someone on the hunt for something quick and healthy. “I thought about, well, McDonald’s,” says Marquis. “Look at how great, big and huge they are across the world. So copy that model, but… be a good business, with a good model to carry that mission out.”
Four years of business planning, investor rounds and making and testing recipes herself led to the opening of the first Hip City Veg, at 127 South 18th Street just above Rittenhouse Square. Soon after she opened in April 2012, she was running out of food before the day was over. A second location opened in West Philly in October 2013, and Marquis now has ambitions to open another in Washington, D.C. “Every meal that we sell here is one less meal with animal products,” says Marquis. “And that’s big. That has a major effect on the environment, on animal suffering and on human health.”
At her newest Philadelphia project, a vegan taqueria at 33 South 18th Street, Marquis is excited to offer customers a plant-based version of the flavors and textures she experienced growing up in a Puerto Rican family. She wishes her grandmother were still alive to see the doors open in July, even though she was skeptical of her granddaughter’s food choices. “In Puerto Rican food, you’re surrounded by meat,” says Marquis. When Marquis would visit and tell her grandmother why she couldn’t eat some of her food, she was puzzled. “Are you okay?” she would ask, “Are you sick?” Marquis laughs as she recalls the story.
Helping people see the benefits of plant-based living is Marquis’ mission, and she wants to do it through offering delicious food. “One option is to just preach about it, right? But I knew that wouldn’t reach as many people.” And preaching might not have had the thrill that being a business owner does. “I was okay putting everything on the line to open the first Hip City Veg,” she says. “I find business really, really thrilling.”