AFTER SUCCESSFULLY OPENING IN VANCOUVER, B.C., in 2016, Virtuous Pie started serving its over-the-top pizzas and house-made ice cream in Portland in June 2017. Toppings on the Curry Mile pizza include chickpea curry, mint raita and roasted cashews, while the Kim-Jack mixes kim chi with gochujang-braised jackfruit and hoisin crema. Prefer to design your own pizza? Too bad. Chef Jim Vesal has worked hard to bring his strange flavors into balance, and doesn’t want customers ruining a good pie.
The Virtuous Pie empire is expanding quickly. Next stop: Toronto. What’s the secret to their success? They’re hitting just the right mix of taste, health, ethics and style.
INTERNATIONAL PIZZA EMPIRE
On opening weekend in Portland, Virtuous Pie’s lines were out the door. “It’s been cool to see people’s reactions,” Vesal says. “Some say it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had.”
Vancouver and Portland aren’t so far apart, but Vesal and co-founder Lia Loukas are navigating differences in regulations between the two countries, as well as the challenges of preparing similar menus while sourcing ingredients from different suppliers. “Portland is especially hyperlocal, so a lot of the vendors are really, really close, in Portland or just outside,” says Loukas, Virtuous Pie’s director of marketing. Even the flour is different. “Friends from Vancouver say the crust is so much better in Portland.”
More traditional pizzas, such as a margherita and their vegan take on meatball and chevre, do better in Portland, while Vancouverites gravitate toward more exotic pizzas. “People play it a little safer,” Vesal says of the Portland location. “Vancouver is so multicultural. People are exposed to more adventurous flavors in a day.”
The Portland store opens mornings to serve coffee from Tart Coffee Roasters and pastries made by local vegan baker Shoofly. Virtuous Pie crafts its own nondairy milks. For their lattes, customers can choose between cashew/Brazil nut and coconut/hemp. Loukas recommends an affogato with their house-made ice cream. “Turmeric and black pepper ice cream tastes amazing with espresso.”
Virtuous Pie is part of a larger trend in attracting omnivores to plant-based restaurants by being hush hush about the “v” word. “One of the things I wanted to focus on was removing the stigma of ‘the vegan option,’” Vesal says. “If you have a vegan option, a carnivore’s immediate reaction is not that great. Our menu is not designed for a vegan option, but for a good option.”
Loukas and Vesal aren’t concerned with turning people into vegans, but aim to provide an easy way to deliciously cut down on meat, even if that means trading out one meat-centered meal per week. “In order for us to move the needle, we wanted to get non-vegetarians in,” Vesal says.
Both Vesal and Loukas have deep connections to the restaurant world. Loukas grew up in her family’s Greek restaurant before studying nutrition and health at university. Vesal worked his way up from dishwasher to chef in Vancouver restaurants. “We really are on a mission to change the way that people eat,” Loukas says. “We’re about creating a space that’s inviting for everyone. It’s about great-tasting food.”
To eat a virtuous pie, check out the locations on their website, virtuouspie.com.