“Three punks open a vegan diner in South Philly.”
Sounds like a setup for some classic olde thyme comedy, but The Tasty, located at 1401 S. 12th St., is the real deal. Since moving to East Passyunk last spring, the breakfast-and-brunch spot has been on my radar as a bustling neighborhood zone for vegan takes on the diner-inspired comfort food we all know and love.
(Seriously, good luck grabbing a seat after 10 a.m. on a Saturday. The Tasty is generally quite packed with vegans and omnivores alike at any given time of day.)
With a menu boasting tofu scrambles, breakfast burritos, fried chicken sandwiches, pork rolls, cheesesteaks, chicken and waffles, and pastries baked in-house (not to mention the endlessly rotating weekend specials and carefully curated coffee selections), The Tasty’s runaway success is multifold.
Yes, the menu is consistently dope, and dually serves a growing demographic that often has a tough time finding a wider range of options in Philadelphia’s network of diner, and diner-inspired, brunch spots.
But all credit is due to co-owners Kate Hiltz (who manages New Jersey punk band The Bouncing Souls and owns Chunksaah Records), Sofia Baltopoulos, and Restorations guitarist/keyboardist Ben Pierce, who imbue The Tasty with a sense of community, care and white-knuckled work ethic that stems from their collective—and extensive—background in a do-it-yourself music scene.
Since The Tasty celebrates one year in business this month, I recently sat down with Hiltz, Baltopoulos and Pierce over vegan Buffalo wings to talk about its first 12 months, absurd city bureaucracy, and why punks are the best at getting shit done.
The Key: So The Tasty’s one-year anniversary is coming up in May. Where did this crazy idea to open up a vegan diner come from anyway?
Sofia Baltopoulos: I knew [Ben] before I knew Kate. I’m from Boston and I met Ben because I booked Restorations shows while I lived there. I met Kate through my fiancé. He was in a band and Kate put out their album [on Chunksaah Records]. Once Kate and I figured out that we both love cooking, we started catering together in 2014.
Kate Hiltz: I work for the Bouncing Souls and for the last nine years we would put on these Home for the Holidays shows. I would do the backstage catering, a vegan buffet. Sofia was staying my house and I was trying to be tour manager, running the show and I asked if she knew how to cook at all, to which she said, “Yes!” I just had to believe her or whatever. When I got there, she had finished everything and put it exactly how I would have done it. I never said anything. When we actually started cooking together, I figured out that this was the person that understands. We didn’t have to talk to each other.
KH: We were both doing our pop-up thing when randomly Ben posted on Facebook about how Atlantic Pizza is up for sale and was like, “Anyone want to open a multi roaster?” And Sofia says, “Me and Kate want to open our vegan diner there. OK? OK.” We came and looked at the space and decided, “Great. We’ll take it.”
TK: How the hell do you open a business?
SB: Kate owns her record label, but none of us had really done anything like this before. It was a lot of going on the internet and reading all the steps to opening a restaurant. Seriously. We met with the people from Little Spoon and they gave us a lot of advice. Just talking to people and learning as we went was crucial. We did most of the renovation work ourselves. Since we all come from the punk scene, that’s the common ground. You get stuff done. You figure it out. There’s no hiring other people. Asking for help? We would never.
KH: You need a license for electric. Plumbing. Fire systems. So much more. But anything that didn’t require a license, we did it ourselves.
The first couple of months [since purchasing the space] was just waiting for lawyers and paperwork. Every step of the way, you need to get city approval and wait the maximum amount of time because it’s a city bureaucracy. You have to know someone or whatever. There are permits for basically everything.
That’s a huge undertaking, right?
KH: Sure, but not for punks. That’s the thing. We just showed up.
TK: Do you find that applying that punk ethos into something completely different, like opening a restaurant, works for you?
KH: Yes. I think it’s the same every day. You never know what’s going to happen so we just show up. I feel as though a lot of people spend an exorbitant amount of time in meetings and making plans and writing proposals.
Here, we’re just like, “We’re gonna do the renovations now. I need a hammer. You have one?” So much of our time was spent just waiting for permits. And that was infuriating.
TK: Seems like since opening last spring, The Tasty has met nothing but immediate success.
KH: Well, ninety percent of restaurants don’t make it through their first year.
Ben Pierce: That was everybody’s pep talk for us.
KH: And [part of that success] is owed to how all of these other local vegan places have been so supportive since we opened. We had to close one Saturday because the belt on our exhaust fan broke. Ben posted something on Instagram about it and immediately, Blackbird Pizza, Miss Rachel’s Pantry, all of these people reached out asking how they could help. “I got a guy!”
And now those people, they’re our friends now, and they all come in here all the time, too.
TK: Since you all have such similar backgrounds, do you find that some of those skills you may have developed in a punk environment transferable to owning a restaurant?
BP: Talking to strangers. That’s a big one. I have to do that every day now!
KH: There’s a kind of person that’s set out for this. That’s why our lives are so self-directed. I certainly had no idea how to manage a band when I dropped out of graduate school to go on tour with the Bouncing Souls. I figured it out. People say, “I want to do what you do. Do I go to school for that?” No. Just get in the van. You have to be competent and willing to to look foolish or fail a little bit. It has more to do with the reason we all found ourselves in that scene and now here, owning a restaurant, is because we’re make-it-happen people.
You make things happen out of nothing. “I have a space we can do shows.” “I have a van.” It’s the same thing. Plus, there’s a community aspect to all of this. It’s not a competition. It’s for the greater good. What part can I play to have all of this be a service to other people?
People spend tons of time and money and energy just wasted when you could actually just be doing something. I’d rather spend my time making pancakes.
The Tasty, 7 a.m.-4 p.m., 1401 S. 12th St., (267) 457-5670, thetastyphilly.com.
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