The couple behind Pow Pow, the fast-casual counter on H Street NE that has developed a strong following for its meat-free Asian fusion bowls, is about to open a Plant Food Lab Incubator in Dupont Circle that will serve as the test site for new businesses selling versions of American drive-in food or New York-style deli sandwiches that vegans can eat.
Owners Margaux Riccio and Shaun Sharkey have secured permits to open their incubator at 1829 M Street NW. The first brand they’ll try out there is Bubbie’s Plant Burgers, a former pop-up that sells burgers featuring seitan or beetroot patties and “chick’n” sandwiches with crispy breading. Bubbie’s plans to start staff training this week with the goal of officially opening Monday, January 4. Riccio says the shop could welcome its first customers sooner if training goes well.
While they settle into the incubator, Riccio and Sharkey are also working on opening a downtown location of Pow Pow, at 1250 Eye Street NW. Bubbie’s will eventually move into its own space on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, too.
“It’s scary, no one’s opening restaurants right now. Everyone thinks we’re a little crazy to do this,” Riccio says. “We feel that, with all the food shortages, people are trying plant-based when they wouldn’t try it normally. If anything, this is a good time to reach new people. There’s been a lot of disruption in the food supply.”
Bubbie’s Americana theme is apparent in its freshly cut fries and with signage reminiscent of a soda shop. The streamlined menu is similar to the one Bubbie’s had during a year-long pop-up at Rock & Roll Hotel on H Street. That includes plant burgers topped with Riccio’s version of bacon a d non-dairy cheese. Fried chick’n sandwiches come drenched in sauces such as Thousand Island dressing, agave mustard, or Buffalo combined with cashew-based blue cheese.
“Everything I make is basically because I’m hungry. It’s what I miss eating,” says Riccio, a chef who radically changed her diet to eschew dairy and meat after battling debilitating food allergies.
As a nod to Seinfeld, Riccio will always include a “big salad” on the menu, with rotating toppings like strawberries, candied nuts, and chick’n strips.
Riccio makes all the proteins herself, although she may offer Impossible products at some point. The comfort food angle is an easy sell during the pandemic, Riccio says, and she thinks Bubbie’s will be accessible to everyone.
“Making fake meats, you get people hesitant to try new things,” she says, “But everyone knows what a chicken sandwich is or a burger is.”
Riccio added beet burgers and “hot dog” that swaps in a carrot specifically for vegans who aren’t into fake meat.
Bubbie’s will offer carryout and delivery only to start. Customers can scan a QR code at the restaurant to order their food. Or they can preorder on the website for delivery within a 5-mile radius. The restaurant is also on various delivery apps.
Riccio and Sharkey know that winter is a tough time to open a restaurant, with January typically being one of the slowest months of the year. But the opportunity to open in the M Street storefront fell in their lap when a friend asked them to take over his lease after having to close his short-lived rotisserie chicken restaurant, Cafe Mia.
Riccio and Sharkey are excited to have a place they can experiment with menus and restaurant ideas.
“It’s going to be a really great way in D.C. to grow without having the pressure,” Riccio says.
She’s also on the hunt for a sous chef to help her carry the load, and she thinks the incubator could be place for employees to flesh out their restaurant dreams, too.
“It will give people that work for us an opportunity that we never had,” she says.
Bubbie’s is kosher, just like Pow Pow, which earned its certification from DC Kosher at the request of members from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s synagogue.
“We only had to change one item, which was our fortune cookies,” Riccio says.
As someone with severe food allergies, she understood how difficult it could be to try to find food she could eat outside her home, and wanted to be accommodating.
“What we found was the kosher community was so awesome, we would happily keep all our restaurants kosher,” she says. “Since COVID started, they started having us do drops in our neighborhood, they’ve had us at synagogue. They really are the most supportive community. We absolutely love them.”
Riccio and Sharkey are hoping to move Bubbie’s to Adams Morgan by the summer. At that point, the incubator will transform into Cenzo’s, a New York-style deli where the chef can showcase her homages to cold cuts, charcuterie, and cheeses.
Cenzo’s and Bubbie’s are both inspired by the names of Riccio and Sharkey’s dogs. They have a Shih Tzu named Sebastian, but affectionately known as Bubbie, and a French bulldog called Vincenzo.
Plant Food Lab will also stock products from Vertage, Riccio’s wholesale operation that supplies vegan cheeses and meats to other restaurants. D.C. mini-chain Andy’s Pizza and Takoma Park Mexican restaurant Cielo Rojo are already buying her cheeses. Customers who want to buy Riccio’s muenster, gouda, blue cheese, and feta — all made with nuts or soy — will be able to find them for sale in a fridge at the incubator. Customers can give her instant feedback by via a QR code on the label.
Riccio says she’s made one convert already: her grandmother, “who is an old-school Italian, and she loves meat and cheeses,” Riccio says. “I sent her some of the cheeses, and she was telling me up and down she would hate it. [She] loved them. Said she couldn’t tell the difference. I feel like that’s where plant-based is going.”
- Bubbies [Official Site]
- Where to Order Vegetarian and Vegan Takeout in D.C. [EDC]