Insights / Interviews / Q&A with Nicole Marquis: Building a Budding Plant-Based Empire Through Culture, Ghost Kitchens and Passion
Q&A with Nicole Marquis: Building a Budding Plant-Based Empire Through Culture, Ghost Kitchens and Passion

When Nicole Marquis decided to go vegan, the choice would quickly go on to change her life. Marquis had been working in restaurants to pay her way through grad school, and it was around the same time that her dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

“The story [of HipCityVeg] really starts with my experience at home with my dad,” says Marquis. “He was in his 50s, a little overweight, on blood pressure medication, and he had just been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He’s a nurse practitioner, and he was saying, ‘Nicole, it’s just genetics, it’s the way it is.’ And I said, ‘Papi, no.’”

Marquis made her dad a green smoothie, the same one now sold by the thousands every month at her plant-based restaurant chain HipCityVeg. He was instantly hooked, and soon after decided to go plant-based for two months. What happened to his health was “a miracle”, says Marquis. “He eliminated all four of his blood pressure medications, put his type 2 diabetes into remission, and lost 25 pounds,” she says. 

The transformation set Marquis on a mission to bring plant-based food to the masses. In 2012, Marquis opened up her first HipCityVeg location, a fast-food-style restaurant known for its burgers, shakes, and other comforting fare, all made sans meat and with health-conscious twists.  “The concept was really to serve food that was familiar – fast food most of us grew up with and love – so people would try it,” says Marquis. “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 that people would crave it in return. I knew that was the way to bring plant-based foods to millions of people everywhere.” 

Across the past decade, Marquis has grown a loyal customer base, most of whom aren’t vegetarian or vegan, she says. She’s also grown the brand from one restaurant into 15, with plans for rapid expansion over the next five years. 

We sat down to talk to Marquis about growing a successful plant-based restaurant chain, and how cultivating strong company culture, plus pandemic-fostered innovations like HipCityVeg ghost kitchens, have contributed to its success.

When you first started shaping the concept of HipCityVeg, what were some initial strategies you used in order to compete against more traditional fast food competitors?

We wanted to make eating plant-based food really easy, affordable, and convenient for everyone. I always had the vision of being the leader in this category, and I believe our success is due in large part to our strong belief in our mission. 

I also created the brand with design first. I’m very design-oriented, and I think people underestimate how important that is. When I opened the first one, everyone was like, ‘Oh, what other cities are you in?’, and that was intentional. I wanted to look like I was already a national brand.

Across the past decade, you’ve managed to open 15 locations across three states. When did you know it was time to start growing, and how did you choose your locations as you expanded?

I never went into it thinking I was only going to open one restaurant, and so it was really after the first one. We started seeing a profit, and I always had the vision of creating a national brand. 

I chose the first location because it was really, really small and I had no money. I needed to make sure I could pay rent, and I was brand new at figuring out how to do it. But we had people lining up for [the food] because there was a pent up demand for it in Philadelphia. 

The way I’ve chosen the other locations, I spend a lot of time in the area. I definitely do all of the work, looking at data and demographics and density, but I also like to get a feel for the neighborhood and the block because so much is about the actual block when you’re in a city. You can be one block over and it’s totally different. So I talk to people in the area. 

You opened a flagship store recently in New York City’s Union Square. Why there?

We’d been planning to enter the New York market for a few years. It's the best city on Earth. I go there as much as I can to observe the energy, the innovation, the excitement, and I think there’s a real unmet need in the market there for plant-based American classics. 

But New York is extremely capital intensive, it’s the most competitive city in the country, and it was a brand new market for us, so it had never quite been the right moment. 

Now people say, ‘Why during the pandemic was it the right moment?’ Well, I decided I was going to go in scrappy, with a very small location. I had been walking those blocks for years, just looking for the right spot, and we finally found it. It’s 700 square feet and already had a lot of the infrastructure in place. 

The pandemic has changed so much of our business and has forced us to do things completely differently. This was one example where I made sure we were going in super capital light, and that we could also support delivery with virtual kitchen outposts.

Tell me about the ghost kitchens you just opened in Queens and Brooklyn. What are your main goals with them?

We call them our Go Kitchens. In the last two years, our online and delivery sales went from 15-percent to 60-percent of revenue. That’s just so much of our business that’s completely online, so this strategy makes a lot of sense for us. Our expansion model in New York pairs a new flagship store with the Go Kitchens in other neighborhoods so that we can introduce our burgers, shakes, and fries to New Yorkers in other zip codes, right from the start. Expanding this way makes it doable to open new locations more quickly and test new markets without a full brick-and-mortar in each neighborhood, which of course takes longer and costs much more. 

When every six months the restaurant industry is faced with another variant that just knocks us to our knees, so much is so risky right now. We want to grow and expand, but we’re thinking about how we can do it smarter and in a way that allows us to reach more people where they are, which is in their homes.

The concept of catering to people in their homes – did this play a role in your recent plans to open a location inside a grocery store?

Yeah absolutely. The last couple of years has really forced us to be more agile and creative than ever. As we keep finding new ways to surmount new hurdles, we’ve learned that crises can also foster creativity. 

HipCityVeg has an extremely diverse customer base, and a lot of our customers have been asking us to come to their neighborhoods for a long time. This gives a chance to do that affordably.

Jeff Brown, who’s [the supermarket owner] of Fresh Grocer and the ShopRites [in the Philadelphia area] is known and beloved by the community as a social activist and entrepreneur, and for putting grocery stores in food deserts. And he focuses a lot on entrepreneurs of color. He knew I’m a Latina entrepreneur, and he approached us because he was seeing a lot of demand from customers for plant-based options, so he asked if we’d come on board to use the kitchen space in his grocery stores. 

We’re taking everything one step at a time. The first location will mainly be a delivery outpost to introduce our foods to people in surrounding zip codes beyond just downtown Philadelphia. I never imagined I’d only be in upscale locations. I always wanted to go to where I grew up. And we know that so many people who used to commute for work are working from their homes right now and can’t get our food.

Can you share any advice for other restaurant operators who are looking to take that first step of expanding beyond one restaurant?

Get yourself a badass operations leader. You need that because opening new restaurants takes a vast amount of knowledge, determination, skill, and so much patience. And it takes the ability to push hard to keep everyone going – from the power companies to the contractors to keeping meal workers on schedule to building a whole infrastructure at the headquarters. It’s intense, and you have to build a really strong leadership team if you want to expand.

What are some strategies you’ve used for cultivating and maintaining a robust leadership team?

You commit to valuing your employees as your number one asset, because they are. My top leaders, we talk about that all the time. I hold leadership meetings three times a week, and every manager in the enterprise gets on a Zoom call. We ask questions, we listen, and we give them important updates so there’s constant communication.

We took a big step last year – as far as we know we’re the first fast-casual to commit to paying all of our hourly employees a minimum of $15 per hour. We call it $15 for our Families. That was an important step towards growing our company and our culture, building the world we want to live in, and communicating how much we value the employees who power our stores and have gotten us through this pandemic. We believe it’s not only the right thing, but it also makes good business sense. It helps with recruiting, with retention. And I think our $15 for Families really paid off. We have an incredibly loyal team, and they’re confident that if they work hard, they'll grow with us. 

But it’s especially hard right now. Just in 2020, we had two rounds of layoffs. You’re building and breaking down your team in this current environment so frequently, so you have to rebuild your culture all over again. For many operators, I totally empathize. They’re struggling to keep that going, and it’s almost impossible sometimes.

Any advice on how other independent, fast-food-style restaurants can make room for wage increases?

It requires a leap of faith, first of all. One beautiful consequence was how our customers reacted. I received emails saying, ‘Hey, I just saw the announcement, and I want you to know that I used to eat at your place once a week, and now I’m going to eat there twice a week.’ And we received numerous emails and phone calls like that. 

During that same time, the spike in supply costs more than doubled. That hurt us more than probably anything else. I’m more concerned and focused on finding great talent than I am on labor costs because in this environment, you absolutely have to and should value your employees as your greatest asset. I repeat this because it’s so competitive, and they truly are the people who keep the business going, and who show the culture to your customers – happy employees, happy customers. Focus on culture and retention, and that will keep costs down.

Do you have any advice on how to prevent burnout among employees?

Communication is key and it has to work both ways. But also restaurants provide great flexibility for employees, and I think that needs to be brought up, too. The fact that you can change your schedule, and change your shifts – for students, for part-time workers, that’s really important. So I think really working with employees to have the most optimal schedule for their life and lifestyle is a great way to prevent burnout.

Where do you see HipCityVeg in the future?

In five years, we’ll have 100 restaurants across the country, maybe even across the globe. I’ve never doubted this. And my strong belief in achieving this level of success against all odds is what’s always fueled me and my team of strong leaders, most of whom are women, to push through and succeed.

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