Interview With Nicole Marquis, Founder HipCityVeg

Image: Katie Borrazzo

If you live in Philadelphia or Washington D.C. and have never tried plant-based restaurant HipCityVeg, what are you waiting for? We got a chance to check out HipCity’s newest DC location in Dupont Circle and ask founder Nicole Marquis some questions about what sets her restaurant apart and why even meat lovers can’t get enough.

ODP: You’ve stated previously that you were a graduate student when you decided to drop out of school and start a vegan restaurant. What was so compelling about a plant-based diet that you felt so strongly to leave your career path and launch HipCity Veg?

NM: I was a Performing Arts major in grad school, working on theater presentations of Shakespeare and other classics. During that time, I developed a passion for and a sense of mission about the impact of our food choices on the environment, other animals and our health. I think it was my way of trying to find a more purposeful life.

ODP: Did you have a background in culinary arts? How did you develop the concept for the restaurant and the menu?

NM: I had worked as a server in restaurants since high school and later as a restaurant manager, but I don’t have any formal training as a chef. I love food and I guess I have a good idea of what flavors people crave. I worked with some outstanding chefs to create the exact flavor profile I was looking for. I would give them general ideas about the type of menu item I wanted and then do what seemed like countless tastings until we got what I was looking for.

ODP: What were some of the initial challenges in opening HipCity? Did you have any difficulty sourcing food or convincing customers to try you?

NM: I think the biggest challenge in opening a restaurant is planning. I researched it thoroughly and did an extensive business plan. Still, I ran out of food in the beginning and struggled to hire more staff because I underestimated how popular the concept would be from the very start. But my careful planning is what has made it possible for me to survive the craziness that is still part of starting a successful restaurant.

ODP: You now have 8 restaurants with the 9th  opening this spring in Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood. What do you think has driven your success?

NM: I believe that success is due in large part to our strong belief in our mission of making delicious plant-based food convenient, affordable and available to everyone. We know we can have a greater impact on our health, the health of the planet and on other living things by changing how people eat than by anything else we as individuals can do. It drives us to work hard—including the careful planning mentioned above, and hiring wonderful people who also believe in the mission, because we believe in what we do.

ODP: Some people think of plant-based foods as grains and granola, what do you think it is about your concept that has so many meat-eaters coming in and turning into repeat customers?

NM: I wanted HipCityVeg to serve food that was familiar, like the fast-food most of us grew up on, so that people would try it. And I insisted from the beginning that our food had to compete and win against traditional foods solely on the basis of taste and satisfaction, so people would crave it and return. Most of our guests are not vegetarian or vegan. They come because they love the taste and the way they feel after eating it. And that leads right back to our mission, which will ultimately make the world a better place by helping more people live a plant-based lifestyle, at least some of the time, if not all the time.

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