A Dozen Questions with Christian Pilosi

Earlier this month, Eden — A Vegan Cafe, 344 Adams Ave., Scranton, announced that after five years of operation, it would be shutting its doors and closing down the business within the upcoming weeks. Owner Christian Pilosi cited a number of different reasons behind the tough decision (the struggling economy and parking issues to name a few), but what he couldn’t see at the time were the number of loyal customers and local businesses lining up to help out a fellow member of the community through these tough times. After a recent surge in business and a successful Indiegogo campaign which raised more than $9,000, the future of Eden, the area’s only vegan eatery, looks much brighter. We asked Pilosi 12 questions about which direction Eden is heading, his new business plan and his feelings about the community that stepped up to help him become more motivated to succeed than ever.

1. When did you realize that it might be time to walk away from Eden?
We saw things slow down significantly in the second half of 2013. The summer was still very good for business — as people are out and about walking more — and our healthy offerings fit the season as well, but the fall and winter were a different story. Business slowed downtown for us and many other businesses I talked to. There seemed to be a myriad of reasons: the economy, the weather, the lack of parking and increased enforcement times and higher fines at the parking meters, and also the change in the timing of the stoplights in many areas downtown. Folks just weren’t coming downtown as much and were tightening their belts and reining in their spending. This carried into the holiday shopping season as well, which we had hoped would not happen, but it did and it hit us and many others pretty hard. That was when I was forced to seriously consider closing Eden and explore going back into the traditional workforce.

2. What was the initial reaction from your customers to the closing announcement?
The reaction was immediate and overwhelming. I made the announcement on our Facebook page on Wednesday, Jan. 8, just two weeks ago, after returning home after the day at Eden and a yoga practice at Mission Yoga. After posting it, I walked away from my computer for an hour, only to return to find hundreds of comments expressing how much Eden has meant to so many and how much everyone hoped we could find a way to press on. Customers came in that Thursday, Friday and Saturday in droves, offering to help in all sorts of ways, saying that they would come by more and bring others with them and tell everyone they know to support us. There were many tears, hugs, words of encouragement and expressions of deep gratitude for what we do. It was amazing, inspiring, humbling and melancholy for me, as I am a very emotional guy by my nature, so I pretty much had a lump in my throat the entire time. I am so thankful for everyone who expressed their thankfulness for what I created a little more than five years ago.

3. How quickly did you realize that maybe closing Eden wasn’t the right answer?
The outpouring of support we were hearing from customers, the downtown small business community and even people outside of the area touched my heart so much that I was inspired to try to come up with ways that we could save Eden. I also started receiving calls and emails expressing interest in investing in Eden and partnering with me to take Eden to the next level. So I sat down at my laptop that following Sunday, just four days later, and came up with a four-step plan that could keep things going and give others an opportunity to play a part in it all.

4. Has the outpouring of support from the customers, businesses and community changed your vision and attitude?
It has strengthened my resolve to continue my vision and it has me as inspired as I was more than five years ago when I first created Eden — if not more so. We have built a very specific brand here, and to see so many in the community recognize and appreciate that, it truly gives me the strength and the push needed to keep going and see where this all will lead.

5. Now that you’ve raised a substantial amount of funds through a very successful Indiegogo campaign, are you looking into implementing different business strategies to make Eden better than before?
Yes. The Indiegogo campaign was step one of the four-step plan, and in just seven of the 14 days it has surpassed its goal, so it has been a roaring success. We have received donations from $3 to $1000 from local people and folks from all across the country. Now I can move on to step two, which is meeting and speaking with the dozens of people who have contacted me about Eden’s future and would like to talk about investing, partnering, raising capital and pushing Eden forward in bigger and better ways to grow and expand on what we have created here over the past 5 years.

EC23EDEN_2_WEB6. Has anyone taken advantage of your perk two or three offers in donating to the Indiegogo campaign?
They sure have! Perk two, (which includes a personal “shout out” on Eden’s Facebook page as well as a personal email from me with several of my favorite recipes) has been claimed by 29 people for a $100 contribution, and perk three (which includes the perks in perk two, as well as a personal Vegan Coaching and Cooking Session with me) has been claimed by two people for a $1000 contribution.

7. What kind of assistance (e.g. from Scranton Tomorrow) have you been offered in addition to financial support?
We have received so much support in so many various ways. The University of Scranton’s Small Business Development Center has reached out to me, offering to act as a sounding board and meet with me to review the pros and cons of all offers of investing, partnering, etc., all free of charge and Scranton Tomorrow is currently brainstorming some ideas as well as contacting PennDOT regarding the situation with the ill-timed stoplights downtown so it can be corrected sooner rather than later. Of course, the thousands of people both near and far who have shared our campaign on social media, as well as through word of mouth marketing, sharing our story and telling others who we are, what we do and why they love us so much has been invaluable.

8. Does reaching your fundraising goals ensure that you will remain open in downtown Scranton or are you considering other locations?
We love our space on Adams Ave. We love the block and everyone on it, including The Bog, The Fanciful Fox, Embassy Vinyl, Thai Rak Thai and we would love to continue doing what we do in this space. Our landlord offered us a generous rent reduction as well, and our customers, both regulars and newcomers, really love the look and feel we have created here. It is “home” to so many. So as we head into step two, there are many possibilities, such as remaining where we are and expanding the space into available space next to us, opening other locations, adding a food truck operation, or even possibly talking about franchising. If I learned one thing in the past two weeks, and the past five years really, it is that anything is possible.

9. How do you define “New American Vegan Cuisine?”
We define what we do as New American Vegan Cuisine because a large part of what we do is take traditional American comfort foods — turkey clubs, meatball subs, cheesesteaks, buffalo wings, burgers of all kinds, pizzas, wraps, soups, smoothies and more — and veganize them. The same taste, texture and comfort are all there, but without the cholesterol, saturated fat, extra calories, animal cruelty and the negative environmental impact of eating their animal-based counterparts.

10. Eden has a reputation for “meat/dairy alternative” dishes. What recipes do you carry or are you considering for clients who prefer whole foods to processed mock meat products?
While our main focus is on the meat/dairy alternative dishes, we provide whole food dishes daily as well, such as our “create-your-own” salad concept with a wide variety of fresh and seasonal whole food ingredients to choose from, several different rice, veggie and bean dishes, fresh plant-based wrap creations, our weekly soup specials, and many seasonal specials such as avocado dishes stuffed with kale, white beans and a variety of vegetables, or our recent stuffed acorn squash special. We shop at the Scranton Farmer’s market during it’s season from July to November, and we strive to buy as local and/or as organic as possible.

11. Is your menu available online?
Our basic menu can be found on our Facebook page in the photos section under the tab titled “Menu,” and we send out a weekly-specials email too. Anyone can get on the email list by sending their email address to edenvegancafe@gmail.com, and we promise not to use any email addresses for spam in any way, because spam is decidedly not vegan.

12. It seems a lot of your marketing is through social media. What about people who don’t use Facebook?
We love social media and reach so many by using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare and other social networking sites. We also have a great presence on restaurant review sites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon, HappyCow and others, where folks can read reviews and see photos of what we do. We had a website, but honestly, we let it fade into the background because we really get a much better connection with others through social media. I remind people that you don’t have to be on Facebook yourself to view our Facebook page and everything on it! Just type our name into Google or any search engine and our Facebook page will come up and you can check it out, even if you aren’t using Facebook yourself at all!
— tom graham

 

even more from Christian…
13. Have you done any outreach to downtown office workers?
We have and many of our lunch customers and after 5 p.m. take-away customers do work downtown. We have offered downtown bike delivery a few times in the past, but most people have told us they like coming into the restaurant more because of the warm atmosphere we have created inside our doors, even if they are just getting grabbing something to go. Customers can call in their order for a specific pick up time and we have it ready for them. We try to make it as easy as possible for everyone, and as we head into the future of Eden, delivery and other downtown outreach is certainly a possibility.

14. You describe yourself as Founder/Owner/Head Chef/Marketing Guy/Vegan Outreach Coordinator – do you ever feel that you are wearing too many hats and/or consider delegating more?
I have recently joked that I run the place from soup to nuts, literally, and yes, I do need an ownership team of sorts to take Eden to the next level. We have a super team of great people that strive daily to prepare and serve our vegan offerings daily with a friendly smile, and I cannot thank them all enough every single day for what they do. Everyone that has ever been a part of the Eden family, past and present, is valued and has helped create a place that is beloved here in Scranton by locals and so many that make it a point to stop by Eden when they are traveling through the area. Step two of our four-step plan is where I hope to assemble a team of investors/partners that can together take Eden to new heights.

15. Have you researched examples of vegan restaurants in other cities and their best practices? What are some of your most notable discoveries?
I did a lot of this in the beginning, and I am reaching out to do much more of this now. It all ties in to step two, which will bring in more interested parties that can help make this all happen. There’s a saying in the restaurant business that if you are too busy working in your restaurant, you are not able to work on your restaurant. That certainly fits my recent situation at Eden. I am so involved in the day to day operations of the business, that it is difficult to find the time at the end of the day to work on it in the way that it needs to grow and prosper. This is why the four-step plan I have devised is so crucial, and with step one being so successful, and step two having dozens of interested parties waiting to talk about the future of Eden, I feel I can safely say that all the many possibilities for the future of the first all vegan restaurant in NEPA seems to be very bright.