Welcome to "Season 2" of Plant Basting Talks, where we interview entrepreneurs in the vegan-friendly space about their story, what they’ve learned thus far, their business model, and how they measure their business's health. Learn the trends and strategies local businesses are using to grow.
Read the interview with co-owner Jeff Walcott to learn:
- How this casual and familiar vegan/vegetarian dining experience in Fishtown came to be
- Why having a menu of delicious and recognizable items is important to the Pom Pom mission
- Accepting help from others can make all the difference
- The issues Pom Pom has come up against throughout its time in existence
1. What influenced you to start Pom Pom? What role did Soup Kitchen Cafe play in Pom Pom's story?
Soup Kitchen did play a significant role in the Pom Pom origin story. I had met Ben through a mutual friend after moving to Philadelphia and quickly began helping him with his then new(ish) cafe (Soup Kitchen). We got along pretty well from the beginning and had shared experiences of growing up in Detroit before moving to Philly. Helping to grow this business in my new home was exciting and helped me feel part of the community easier than other jobs likely would have.
After 8 or 9 years I was ready for a change of venue as well as being eager to do something new. My personal diet started trending more vegetarian and even vegan for the last several years I was working at Soup Kitchen. The decision for Pom Pom to be vegetarian was partly a selfish one in that this was the sort of place I was looking for close to my home in Fishtown.
2. What were the critical steps you took to get the business started?
I would say the first critical step was finding the location. We had looked at several properties over the years with the thought of doing something new but never fully committed to any of them. Finding our current location (1425 Frankford) at a time when we were both most serious about a new project was definitely what put the wheels in motion.
Then came all the business related manners of forming an LLC, going through the zoning process, etc. Ben was a massive help with all of this as he was a tax attorney in another life. Seriously though, he is an attorney and was very helpful with these matters.
3. How did you get your first customers?
Our literal first customers were friends and family so they were easy to "get" but otherwise getting the word out about being a new food business opening mid-pandemic was most successfully accomplished through Instagram. We were thankful to get a few early mentions from philly.com, neighborhood groups and social media people with much more of a following than us.
4. How have you continued to grow your customer base?
Word of mouth and Instagram have been the best ways to increase our customer base. Things are much different now than when we were trying to grow Soup Kitchen and everyone spends so much time on Instagram that it's become so influential in how people decide what/where they want to eat. As well as links to menus and ordering platforms in just a couple clicks.
5. What is Pom Pom’s business model?
As I mentioned above, the decision to be vegetarian was selfishly motivated. I view someone like myself as a target audience for what we're doing. Getting someone like my father who scoffs at too many vegetables on a plate to eat at Pom Pom and be completely satisfied is another goal. We have tried to put together a small menu of items that are at least somewhat familiar to most people outside of vegetarian and vegan communities and also really delicious and craveable.
"Casual vegetarian" is a phrase we've used to describe both the casual style of service at Pom Pom as well as a customer who has not fully committed to eliminating meat from their diet but makes some effort to consume less meat (and dairy). I suppose our model is to make our food consistently appealing to these people and keep the menu prices as affordable as possible.
6. What is/are the most important metric(s) you track for knowing the health of your business?
The most honest answer to this is probably our bank account. I'm always paying attention to the percentage of new customers coming in and of course I notice how many new followers we have on social media.
We opened this business as inexpensively as we knew how using personal and family financial help and didn't take out any bank loans or money from investors, so money in the bank is the most important metric at the moment.
7. How did you decide on pricing of the menu? Have rising prices or shortages of supplies affected Pom Pom?
We really try to keep our prices as affordable as possible so we are accessible to as big an audience as possible while still being able to compensate our staff properly.
Everyone has been complaining about supply chain disruptions making things more difficult and expensive and we definitely have to contend with this as well. Even in our brief existence (13 months) we have seen our food, paper, and chemical costs go up significantly. They were more expensive than I was used to at the time we opened and have steadily risen ever since. The menu was costed out prior to opening and has been modestly increased once. We probably need to revisit this and consider raising them again. This is a tricky thing to do and effectively communicate the reasons and motives to customers.
8. Why is it important to you that your business is vegan-friendly?
Something I hadn't necessarily considered when putting together a vegetarian menu is that I would simultaneously be putting together a vegan menu. This was made clear to me pretty quickly that we would be getting attention from people with plant based diets and so I should consider how each item could be made vegan and not compromised in any way. We settled on a core menu of things that can all be made vegan with only a subtle mod.
Accessibility was again top of mind with this. I have so much respect for anyone that has committed to this diet and lifestyle and want to make sure we can accommodate them with the majority of the food we make (including specials).
9. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome?
Besides the challenges of rising costs of everything discussed above, I would have to mention the staffing situation. This has been another thing that everyone with a food business has had to contend with and we were fortunate to keep our small opening team for some time with no exits.
Ultimately, people desire more hours and if we can't accommodate their request, they will look elsewhere. We had a beloved employee (Aerin) who helped me open Pom that moved across the country and we haven't yet been able to replace their unique talents and skill set. The usual means of finding people to interview for positions as they open are not producing even close to the amount of returns they once did pre-pandemic. And when you do find someone that you think will be a good fit it's difficult to even get them to come in for an interview. So many no shows for interviews and text/email threads that just end abruptly. I have to assume they were offered another position elsewhere.
10. Have you found anything (resource, book, skill, habit, or bit of knowledge) that’s been valuable or useful for your entrepreneurial journeys?
I think the most valuable thing has been the unique talents of close friends. I'm not usually one to take so many favors without reciprocating them but I've experienced a number of close friends sympathetic to our situation (opening a restaurant at such a trying time) and offering their talents and abilities to help. I most likely would've declined this in the past but now I graciously accept it. And it's been a massive help. I hope to reciprocate these favors in the future.
11. How do you tend to your mental health as business owners?
This one is not so easy as "mental health days" aren't really possible now. If I don't think I can work we will likely have to close for the day. Fortunately it hasn't come to this. While we hope to eventually open longer hours and add another day of service each week, at the moment we are open only five days a week. Having two days off in a row is not something I've ever experienced as a working adult. I definitely try to not concern myself with work at all if possible on Sundays and just enjoy the time with my partner as it's the one day off we both share. Mondays I try to handle most of the work related things that need to be done but really try to get it out of the way early so I don't have to think about it all day. Taking breaks from technology and social media specifically whenever possible is something that is helpful in this regard.
12. Any advice for entrepreneurs just starting out in the vegan-friendly space?
One regret of mine was not putting enough effort into doing popup events in advance of opening Pom Pom. I see so many entrepreneurs that do a great job building a brand with events like this and an enthusiasm for social media that I just don't have that would be a much better setup for opening a vegan brick and mortar. Besides this sort of thing I would encourage them to accept help from friends and family when offered. Especially when their talents are greater than yours in a particular area.
13. Where can we go to learn more about you both and Pom Pom?
1425 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown. Seriously, you can get all the relevant information about Pom Pom from our Google listing so if you want to learn more you can come in and ask us anything. I'm always around and despite being not so social outside of the workplace, at work I love meeting and talking to people.
Interested in learning how to start a vegan-friendly business like Pom Pom?
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