3031 W. 111th
When the fast-food joint Veggie Bite opened in Mount Greenwood, on the southwest side, less than a year ago, says co-owner Sylvia Watycha, "we had a lot of walkouts." Veggie Bite looks like your basic flesh-and-dairy operation--the fiesta-bright yellow-and-blue color scheme, the backlit menu sign with pictures of burgers and nuggets, the stainless-steel shake machine, the piles of ketchup packets. But there's a stack of "Why Vegan?" brochures on the counter, the Italian "beef" is made out of wheat gluten, and the "cheese" fries are covered in something called golden sauce.
"It was pretty depressing," says Watycha. "But after we were in the neighborhood for a while, a lot of those same people started coming back," albeit cautiously: "People ordered, like, the smallest thing on the menu."
Now, though, Watycha and her fiance, Moshe Shalom, say they've made some larger inroads in the traditionally Irish Catholic area. Some of the neighborhood traffic comes from people trying to lose weight--a veggie burger here has about 120 calories, compared to a Big Mac's 560--while others, initially dragged in by vegan or vegetarian friends, seem to have developed a taste for the veggie dogs, "chick-free" nuggets, and other menu items, none of which contain dairy, meat, or other animal products and all of which are meant to appeal to carnivores. "We're catering to the meat eater, you understand?" Watycha says. "We've had a lot of converts. That's what we want." One of the restaurant's promotional posters declares, "Meat has met its match."
Shalom has been vegan from birth. Watycha converted as a teenager, because she couldn't understand why people kept some animals as pets but slaughtered and ate others. (Incidentally, she says, "I'm looking for other Polish vegans to step up, because I've never met another one.") For both, it's more than a lifestyle; it's a calling. Shalom, a part-time runway and magazine model who has appeared in Elle and W, turns down jobs that require him to wear wool, leather, or fur. He and Watycha cite heart disease, obesity, asthma, and constipation as some of the common conditions that a vegan diet can prevent or alleviate. "You don't get high cholesterol from being a vegan," Watycha points out. She even claims she can pick vegans out of a crowd--she says they have calmer mannerisms.
Veggie Bite's menu has doubled as customers have requested vegan versions of more and more meat dishes, including buffalo wings, gyros, meatball subs, and Philly cheesesteaks. (The owners won't reveal their recipes, but they will say that most of the meat substitutes are made of seasoned, texturized wheat gluten.) Shalom recently found himself embroiled in argument with a customer who insisted that the vegan Italian beef sandwich tasted so much like the real thing that it must have meat in it. "It's not meat," Shalom told him over and over. "Trust me." One of the most popular items, the chili-cheese fries, arrive as a fork-worthy mound of fries covered with a decent bean chili and the bright yellow, only slightly grainy golden sauce.
The prices run just a bit higher than McDonald's--a veggie burger combo with fries and an all-natural bottled soda is $6.89. Vegan lemon meringue pie, coconut cake, and other baked goods, sweetened only with brown or turbinado sugar or maple syrup, are available by the slice. "You piss people off" if you use honey, Watycha says, since many vegans consider it an animal product.
Passionate as Veggie Bite's owners are about the vegan lifestyle, they're sympathetic to the difficulties of giving up meat, particularly given the ubiquity of McDonald's, Burger King, and the like. "If you're driving 15 miles, how many junky fast-food places do you pass?" Watycha says. "Your stomach is growling, and you're going, 'I'm gonna be good, I'm gonna be good,' and then you pull up at a stoplight and you go, 'OK, just this once.'" If convenient vegan food were widely available, she and Shalom say, more people would eat it. That's why they're envisioning an entire Veggie Bite chain.
The Chicago Veggie Bite is actually the second location. The first is in the southern California town of Reseda, where Watycha and Shalom frequently visit Shalom's brother. Though the two live in Chicago, they thought it prudent to try the vegan concept out first in the health-conscious west. The Reseda spot opened in May 2005 and did well enough for Watycha and Shalom to open its Chicago counterpart last March. They now host a monthly vegetarian meet-up at the restaurant (see veggiebite.net for a schedule), and in the summers they plan to host movie nights on the patio out back.
The couple have already fielded requests from would-be franchisees, but they're not up for that yet. "Maybe by the third one we'll be ready," Shalom says. That's due to open in Lakeview in April. But why didn't they just start there, or in Andersonville or Wicker Park, instead of on the meat-loving southwest side? "We figured if we could make it in Mount Greenwood," says Watycha, "we could make it anywhere."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.