“Keep it gay and keep it against capitalism,” Christina Verna said, when asked if there was any sort of mission statement for Seitan Rising, a café that opened on Morgan Avenue last August. The business is owned and run by four women: Verna, Amanda Fox, Cheyanne Willis, and Lars Varley. The food knocks and, like the employee-owners, happens to be vegan.
Seitan Rising was born from the combination of two Brooklyn food businesses: Seitan’s Helper, a deli meat-substitute company started by Fox, and Pisces Rising, a vegan bakery started by Varley. The Seitan Rising logo, a skull marked with a V above the silhouettes of flowers and weeds, is a combination of the logos of the two businesses. The café, which is right next to Flushing Avenue, is painted black, with the logo and name rendered in eye-popping pink. The café is mostly a to-go spot, for now, but part of their ethos is to be ever-changing.
“The thing [the pandemic] probably changed the most was how we price everything,” said Verna, when we spoke recently by phone. “All of us agreed we wanted to keep the pricing as low as we possibly could to make it accessible to everyone. We were financially struggling [and] like everyone else we knew was financially struggling and losing their jobs. What’s the point of opening a place that’s just going to be unaffordable in the middle of a pandemic?”
The menu will rotate seasonally and the owners plan to start hosting events as safety allows. I started with the BEC ($6), a breakfast sandwich made on a roll with black pepper bacon, a creamy omelet, sliced cheese, red pepper jam, and maple mayo. The sandwich was special from the first bite, which was smokey and comforting. The stack of seitan bacon was firm and tender. But the best part was the way the maple mayo and red pepper jam combined to create a complex sweetness: the mayo subtle enough that the natural sugar in the red pepper was expressed in every bite.
I also tried the Wicked ’Wich ($9), a focaccia hero with prosciutto, pepperoni, marinated mushrooms, white bean spread, greens, and honey mustard. This sandwich is remarkably balanced, with a tang from the vinegar of the marinated mushrooms and a delicious honey mustard, made with agave. The key to the whole sandwich is the white bean spread, which adds a creamy texture that binds all the other flavors, a reference point that keeps them from clashing.
For dessert, I recommend their miso chocolate chip cookie ($2), which has an even golden crust and is sprinkled with sea salt. The miso was subtle but it was something I had no idea chocolate chip cookies were missing. The croissants alone (which are hand-laminated by Varley, rather than made by machine) are also worth the visit.
Seitan Rising bakes all their pastries every morning and makes everything in-house except some of the cheeses and the breads, which they buy from Balthazar in Manhattan. Most of the meats are seitan, but they try to have gluten-free tempeh options on hand as well. The food options change daily.
Verna said she helped start Seitan Rising, in part, to address systemic problems she saw in the food industry, including exploitative labor practices and unfair compensation.
“The restaurant industry has an extremely toxic culture. The New York City restaurant scene in particular is pretty awful. You’re really expected to do a lot for nothing. And you’re also just seen as a disposable human being,” said Verna. “I feel like that’s the standard, and it would be really nice for that not to be the standard anymore.”
As an employee-owned business, the team hopes to show that better food business models are viable.
“I’m not going to go to anyone’s door and say, ‘why aren’t you doing this?’ But I would be so ecstatically happy if more worker owned restaurants and cafes and businesses in general opened. That would be amazing,” Verna said.
Seitan Rising also donates to various non-profits, such as Stop AAPI Hate and Safe Walks NYC. Right now the owners are donating revenue from the sales of tee shirts, and they have plans to grow their philanthropy as the business grows.
Verna explained that being “against capitalism” and trying to make a better work environment is closely linked with veganism.
“There is no liberation for anyone without liberation for everyone,” said Verna. “How are we going to be vegan and liberate animals if people are also oppressed?”
Top photo credit: Nate Torda
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