By Miranda McCrea
Adam Penn, owner of Veggie Planet in Harvard Square, never aspired to open a vegetarian restaurant. In fact, he went to college for health care administration. This vegetarian Manhattan-native moved from New York to the Boston area to pursue a career in the health field. After working in health care for some time, he realized he disliked his job. Pondering a new career, Penn wondered why there were so few vegetarian restaurants in the Boston area. Thus, the birth of Veggie Planet. Located inconspicuously in Harvard Square at 47 Palmer Street, Veggie Planet has made its presence known.
“The thought occurred to me that, you know, I feel there really is a demand here for vegetarian restaurants. I’m not sure why that demand is not being met,” said Penn. “So I got this crazy idea to open a vegetarian restaurant myself.”
At first it was just that- a crazy idea. Having no restaurant experience, Penn needed the assistance of someone who knew the business.
“I started talking about it to coworkers and friends, and one of my coworkers happened to know a chef who ended up being my business partner,” said Penn. “I would not have been able to do it on my own.”
Penn has since taken over the business and bought out his business partner.
“I saw it as an opportunity…both a business opportunity and a personal opportunity. I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, and I felt that this would be something I could really be passionate about,” said Penn.
Of course, with any new challenge came obstacles. Finding the perfect location to start a restaurant business was a long process. Attempting to find a site for Veggie Planet in Harvard Square, there were rumors that a restaurant wanted to close. Club Passim, a separate business that owned the shared space with the restaurant, seemed unable to give a clear response. Club Passim seemed interested in acquiring Veggie Planet, yet the owners were not making any moves to end the lease with the other restaurant or secure Veggie Planet. Consequently, Passim renewed the lease. Penn saw this as a missed opportunity, until one day the owner of Club Passim contacted Penn and his partner and told them he was ready to explore their proposal.
Over the past twelve years, the menu has thrived. For the most part, the menu has remained unchanged since Veggie Planet first opened. A few core dishes have been added, but none have been removed. One of the customer favorites is Henry’s Lunch, or Dinner, depending on the time of day you order the entrée. It is served over rice, like most entrées at Veggie Planet. Henry’s Lunch is a flatbread pizza topped with butternut squash, caramelized onions, goat cheese, rosemary, sage, and Asiago cheese.
“Henry is named after the cat of my former business partner,” said Penn. “She was the chef, she developed the menu, and apparently that was Henry’s favorite pizza.”
Another favorite is the Portobello Red Head. This pizza dish consists of Portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, rosemary, sage, feta cheese, and a roasted red pepper almond sauce. Although many of the pizzas boast exotic flavors, one of the most popular pizzas is the Safe and Sound. The Safe and Sound is a traditional Margherita pizza made of marinated tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and Asiago cheese.
For the first six to eight years, Veggie Planet grew at a steady rate; then the restaurant hit a plateau. At that point, seating capacity had been taken away from the business due to stricter fire code laws—an aftereffect of the club fire in Providence. Normally the front lobby area would fit sixteen or seventeen people. Now the same area maxes out at ten. Serving between 1200 and 1500 people a week, Veggie Planet had to open a second restaurant to create more space for the number of customers who walked through their door. Penn stated that Veggie Galaxy, a vegan diner located in Cambridge, opened “a couple years ago, and that’s a stand-alone restaurant… we do a pretty good business there. And hopefully that will still grow because it’s still pretty new. It’s about two years old now.”
As for future business plans, Penn seems optimistic. “Never say never, but right now I’m feeling like two is enough. I don’t have any year-term plans to open a third restaurant… Right now, at Veggie Planet, we open at 11:30 a.m. every day. I’m thinking about opening for breakfast.”
Opening for breakfast seems like a good development for the Harvard Square location. Penn toys with the idea of offering vegan breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and coffee, which is what Veggie Galaxy is currently offering.
Veggie Planet’s growing success is a constant reminder to restaurant owners and college graduates that what one would think of as a crazy idea could really turn into the business opportunity of a lifetime.