The co-owners of Society Hill's newly opened Blackbird Pizzeria
each have their own distinct expertise and roles. Mark Mebus is an accomplished vegetarian chef who received formal training as part of a natural foods culinary institute, while friend Ryan Moylan is a successful graphic designer educated at the School of Visual Arts in New York. It's their punk-rock roots, however, that are most indicative of their willingness to challenge the long-held conventions of a food that's as popular for its simplicity as it is its consistent flavors.
Blackbird is not another neighborhood pizza joint, although Mebus and Moylan wouldn't mind if that's how they were viewed. Blackbird is the city's first all-vegan pizzeria, with hopes of tapping into a health- and socially conscious population and introducing urban foodies to a new world of vegan possibilities.
"It's been a lot of work," Moylan says. "It weighs on you more than I thought."
Moylan and Mebus became friends as teenagers active in New York's punk music scene and have combined their individual talents to get Blackbird up and running. Their menu is designed to diminish the bland, boring or scary stereotypes that mainstream still associates with vegan food.
Mebus gets most of his recipe ideas the old-fashioned way--by experimenting with flavors and spices and doing plenty of taste testing. "I decide what I like and go from there," he says. "I just kind of wing it, and then I'll go back and tweak it." One of his favorite pizza creations is topped with Yukon Gold potatoes, rosemary, olive oil, coarse sea salt, and crushed black pepper. "You don't even miss the cheese," he says.
Mebus has been a vegan for over a dozen years and has been able to successfully merge his lifestyle into the business. He received his formal training as part of the vegan program at the Natural Gourmet School
in New York City. He moved to Philadelphia for a time after graduation and was hired as a chef at popular vegetarian eatery Horizons
, also in Society Hill. Although he had a degree, Mebus says he got his real education in running a restaurant from Horizons' executive chef, Rich Landau. "I learned almost everything from him," he says.
Mebus then went back to New York and worked at upscale organic vegan eatery Blossom in Chelsea for a few years. Then the friends got an idea. "We thought it would be cool to do a vegan pizzeria," Moylan says.
They didn't necessarily set their sights on opening a restaurant back in Philadelphia, but friends here saw an ad for a vacant space, the former Gianna's Grill on 6th Street in Society Hill (right around the corner from Horizons) that seemed to have what they needed, and suddenly their idea had a home. So Mebus moved back to Philly full-time. Moylan maintains his home base in Brooklyn and comes to the city a few times a week. Although not ready to be a full-time resident here just yet, Moylan admits to liking the Philly more with each visit. "It's growing on me," he said.
Mebus spent years working in upscale, full-service restaurants and knew he wanted something different for Blackbird. They've worked hard to create a casual, "neighborhood pizza joint" feel, and want it to be the kind of place where customers stop in to eat several times a week. They also realize the importance of buying local, and use local vendors as much as possible. "All of our desserts come from Vegan Treats
(a vegan bakery) based out of Bethlehem, and we've just started dealing with a local farmer," Moylan says. "With winter approaching it's going to be difficult to get as much produce from them as we would like, but we plan to do more business with them come springtime."
Running a restaurant has been more challenging than either anticipated, but Mebus says they're getting a handle on things. They talked to a lot of friends and colleagues in the restaurant industry prior to getting up and running, and Mebus' experience dealing with vendors and suppliers has been invaluable.
Based on the feedback they've been getting from their initial wave of customers, their hard work is paying off. They are building a clientele of regulars while also introducing tourists and short-term city dwellers to foods that are not typically associated with vegans (think pepperoni and sausage) but taste amazingly like the real thing. It also helps that they are friends with the proprietors of Grindcore House
, an organic coffeehouse located a few blocks from Blackbird, and share much of the same traffic. The two businesses have done some cross-promotion and Blackbird participated in Grindcore's recent Halloween film fest. Their friends from the punk scene have also helped to bring in some customers.
Blackbird Pizzeria is currently open 3-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, but expects to be open for lunch by the end of the year. For now, Mebus and Moylan are relying on word of mouth advertising and customers' social media pages to spread the word as they continue to experiment with new menu items. Moylan's top choice is the Marinated Tofu Cubano. Blackbird's pizza crust and sauce--two of the most important ingredients--have already received rave reviews from both food critics and customers. "I feel that's what really sets us apart from other places," Moylan said.SARA HODON is a freelance writer who lives, works, and plays in Northeast PA. Learn more about her writing trials and triumphs on her blog. Send feedback here.PHOTOS:Ryan Moylan, left, and Mark Mebus don't have a lot of time for posing at Blackbird Pizzeria
Potato and Herb Pizza
BBQ Mushroom Pizza
Mebus shows how his green pizza takeout box transforms into a smaller container
Mebus and Moylan in front of their modern, natural version of the neighborhood pizza joint
Mebus and Moylan working in their kitchen
All photos by MICHAEL PERSICO