If you’re from Vancouver (and don’t live under a rock) then the name, Virtuous Pie, probably already rings a bell. The surprising part is, that this virtuous pizza hang out that is sandwiched between Keefer and East Pender on Main street (583 Main Street) has only been open for less than 2 months. So what’s all the buzz about? After a few of my own personal visits, plus an invite to the press & media launch party several weeks back, I decided that I had to find out more of the story behind these delicious, creative and innovative plant based pizzas.
Just last Friday I sat down with Chef Jim and Lia Loukas, who are the founders and creatives of Vancouver’s Virtuous Pie. The story starts when Jim found himself in a conversation about the potential of a new innovative restaurant in Vancouver. After discussing several themes and directions, they landed on the idea of plant based pizza. One of Jim’s fundamentals from the get-go was developing something that reached beyond the limits of granola-villa and truly approached a more mainstream market. In other words, he didn’t want to repel omnivorous and even carnivorous lifestyles and instead wanted to create something that was leaning towards inclusion rather than exclusion. When Jim, Lia and I got to talking, I knew that we carried a similar ethos when it comes to food and eating lifestyles and how important it is that we meet people where they are at and don’t make them feel bad for not being as ‘evolved’ or ‘inspired’ as we are. In other words, just because someone isn’t vegan doesn’t mean that they are better or worse than a vegan and even more important, it doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy a vegan pizza. Similar to the way that I approach my lifestyle, I want people to eat my food and feel excited, satiated and fulfilled. I don’t want them to feel that they missed out, compromised or even worse, wasted money and time on eating plant based. Jim & Lia agree.
The first time I heard about Virtuous Pie was actually on one of my favourite youtube channels, Lauren Toyota of hotforfood, where Lauren tried some of the virtuous pie goodies at the vegan food fest. As soon as Lauren mentioned that they were from Vancouver, I knew I had to do some research.
Chef Jim is a traditionally trained chef and the Virtuous Pie adventure has played a large role in the evolution of his own lifestyle. “It all started in my studio apartment in Yaletown”, where Jim spent 6 months and began the process of creating vegan cheeses for the first time in his life. Not only that, Chef Jim also decided that they had to make their own pizza dough as well. “There was no way we were going to outsource the dough and make the cheese”. You will find that when you walk into Virtuous Pie and scan the menu, creating ingredients in-house is a key piece of this business.
For all of you gluten-free lovers, Chef Jim also has created a gluten-free pizza dough, which I must say (and my dedicated gluten-free friends will attest to this) that it is one of the best I’ve ever had. When Jim told us the process of making these products, you quickly learn that a lot of love, effort, time and energy has gone into the production of Virtuous Pie. Each ingredient is house-made, the pizzas showcase complementary tastes and innovative technique and the design of the restaurant is in-alignment with a transparent business concept (designs by House of Bohn).
During the first stages of development, they didn’t have a location and Jim’s testing was done out of his own studio apartment. He would spend hours and days locked in his apartment’s kitchen, literally in a scene of a wild scientist, with jars of every gluten-free flour imaginable surrounding him. “I would make a pizza, box it up, hop in a cab and share it with the team in their office”. That is how it all began. One curious traditionally trained Chef and whole lot of visions for shifting Vancouver’s culinary future.
As if that in itself was a challenge, finding a location for the restaurant presented it’s own set of speed-bumps. “Landlords didn’t want us in their building because they didn’t think the business would succeed.” Jim shared that spaces were either too big, too small, or the landlords didn’t accept their applications. Instead of a plant based pizza joint, landlords look for safe business concepts such as A&W and Subway to increase the value of the building. Shocking. One day, Jim decided to hop into his car and scan the scene himself. It was that day that he drove past the Keefer location, and the rest I suppose, is history.
During the development phase, Chef Jim created somewhere along the lines of 60 different pizzas, 8 of which are permanently on the menu; the classics. “We drew a lot of inspiration from Pizzeria Farina and the way that they focus on a small menu”. Pizzeria Farina is Virtuous Pie’s omnivorous neighbour, one of Vancouver’s all-time favourite and classic pizza joints who’s infamous strategy is all around limited pizzas per day and simplicity.
When I asked Jim and Lia how they met, they turned to each other, smiled and confessed “at a party”. Lia’s background depicts a passion and intuition around marketing, community involvement and strategy. Her naturally welcoming manner proves that a jump from retail (Aritzia) to restaurants was a bold and true one. One of my favourite parts of Virtuous Pie is their dedication to being so much more than just a restaurant.
“Our mission is to change the way people eat, and mobilize positive change in the world—one slice (or scoop!) at a time”
as it says on the ‘About page’ of their website. Some of these initiatives have taken flight through their community programs including Sheway (a program which provides health and social service supports to pregnant women and women with infants under eighteen months who are dealing with drug and alcohol issues) and HappyHerdFarm (a registered Not for Profit farm animal sanctuary for farm animals either abused or at risk). In fact, tomorrow (Tuesday, November 8th) for every pizza bought, $1 will go toward the Happy Herd Farm and Vancouver Humane Society to help rescued farm animals and encourage cruelty-free living through outreach and compassionate community building.
You can tell that Lia and Jim envision a brand that reaches beyond just a restaurant as they both voice the importance of community support, team building adventures and more.
So what is there to look forward to, you might ask?
Well, Virtuous Pie will be opening in Portland, Oregon in March! That’s right. Portland’s plant-based scene is about to get even better (joining the likes of some of my favourites: Portobello, Blossoming Lotus, Prasad Cafe, to name a few)! As for things like online ordering, home delivery, and product sales (buy the cheese, dough and ice cream to go)- these offerings are all in the works and coming soon. The Virtuous Pie team have kept very busy since opening (and before, as you can imagine) with line ups out the door every night and many exciting things in the pipeline. Stay up to date with the Virtuous Pie happenings through their various social media channels including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat
Thank you so much to Lia and Jim for sharing your space and story with Chloe’s Countertop. I know that it makes a big difference for me to be able to grab a vegan pizza on-the-go that will wow my friends and leave me feeling good. I will also say that this is the only pizza (and ice cream) that I could eat before noon on a weekday and leave feeling satiated, fulfilled, and not lethargic. I managed to carry out a highly productive and anxiety-free day following this delicious morning visit last Friday. That’s saying a lot for a holistic nutritionist.
Chloe’s favourite Pizzas: Stranger Wings, The Med and Kim-Jack
Lia’s favourite Pizzas: The Med, Stranger Wings, Kim-Jack
Jim’s favourite Pizzas: Stranger Wings, Fennel & Sausage, Ultraviolet
Seasonal Salads: the Greek Quinoa Salad + housemade feta & Butternut Squash & Kale Salad + Wild Mushroom & Potato Salad
Chloe’s Favourite Drink: Lemon Ginger Kombucha by local business, StandardKombucha
Chloe’s Favourite Ice Cream: Turmeric black pepper