With today's opening of their Wiz Kid inside the new Whole Foods Market at 22nd and Pennsylvania Avenue (just a day after chatting with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air), Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's vegan empire reaches a new milestone, bringing fun and friendly plant-based foods hot off the grill to a much wider cross-section of the public than ever before.
And in a way, Landau is coming full circle. "The irony of being back behind a food counter in a health-food store is not lost on me," he mused yesterday while prepping the space for its close-up. The reference is to the early (mid-1990s) Horizons Cafe, a juice-and-snacks bar inside Nature's Harvest in Willow Grove.
As self-taught culinary wiz, Landau plugged away in trying to create the "food of the future," that location outgrew its spot in the store, moved next door, then moved into a larger space a couple doors down before Horizons (sans "Cafe") opened in Philly in 2006, then closed five years later so the vegan power couple could open Vedge. And V Street.
And Wiz Kid, with the counter at Whole Foods being a slightly scaled-down version of the 19th Street location next to V Street that Landau and Jacoby hope to open before Christmas. That fuller version will have a few more regular items, "mostly versions of V Street food," Landau said, but at both Wiz Kids, just one sandwich anchors the whole concept.
I got a special preview bite of the Wiz Kid "Philly Steak," a simple mushroom, seitan, onion, pepper cheesesteak with a rutabaga "Cheez-Whiz" concoction that's easy to eat and easy to love. Landau was justifiably proud of it, and mentioned he'd been tinkering with it "for the past six months." Thinking back, I recalled that he used the rutabaga "wiz" for the cheesesteak I asked him to make for Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) when the vegan legislator was in town back in the spring. Was there a connection?
"Yes," Landau laughed, "Cory Booker had the first one." Then, as if warming to the conceit, he said "I was working on that one and it was good and I thought, 'Man, we could do a little business out of these puppies.' " (He quickly assured me that in fact the sandwich contains zero puppies.)
What a wonderfully customized origin story, even if I seem to recall that Landau was already working on this concept back before Booker came to town. But why quibble? The senator's vegan cheesesteak led inexorably to Wiz Kid and that's settled.
In all seriousness, Landau, known for his incredibly rich and complex concoctions at the upscale Vedge restaurant, mused that "there's something refreshing about the simplicity of this - the broad, simple brush strokes. It's clean, it's pure, it's fun." And it's delicious.
Compared to Landau and Jacoby's recent high-profile exquisite menus on the very cutting edge of mainstreaming vegetables, this menu (two sandwiches, two fries, two salads) may be a more relaxing, lower-pressure venture. But for Philly vegans it's truly exciting to reach this mainstream level - a whole fast-food joint built around a vegan cheesesteak, located within the region's hottest new food retailer.
I imagine quite a few Philly vegans will want to head out to the new Whole Foods this weekend, if only to check out the sandwich inspired by Booker. And if you fit that description, you'll find within the grocery store itself more vegan offerings than ever before.
Among the expanded prepared-foods options are a line of items from North Philly's own Happy Hippy, including spring rolls, Korean Macro Bowls, Rainbow Noodle Bowls, Southwest Salads and Truffles - Cinnamon Chocolate Chia Bombs.
Additionally, this will be the first store in town to carry the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat, the company that bets-hedging meat megaproducer Tyson just invested in. Yes, this is the patty that "bleeds" beet juice in order to trick unwary would-be carnivores into dropping their guard and realizing they're actually enjoying this burger. The vegan burgers are in a standalone case at the back of the store, but are also available in the meat section, another landmark for the plant-based food biz.
Add to all this some more elbow room for familiar and dependably good lines such as Moshe's, the full four freezer cases of vegan frozen items - including some brands that are new to me - and a greater bounty of organic produce, and the new store looks to be a big vegan win for Whole Foods, vegans, and really anyone who wants a good, solid animal-free sandwich.