Bowl from Pow Pow. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Restaurateur Shaun Sharkey and Chef Margaux Riccio are plotting a plant-based restaurant revolution, with plans for at least five D.C. ventures in the pipeline. Embarking on a massive expansion during a global pandemic might not seem prudent, but their timing could be just right. Devastating conditions at meat-packing plants and a desire to eat healthier, among other factors, have contributed to more plant-based eating during the pandemic. A survey of 2,000 American adults published in September suggests that close to 60 percent of Americans have shifted to flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diets.

“We’ve seen a nice incline in people who are not vegan in any way that are just trying to eat more plant-based,” Riccio says. “The pandemic has people more health conscious, or at the very least, more aware of the environmental impact of meat consumption.” 

A desire to hire is also inspiring the rapid growth. “We’ve found so many of our friends that are now out of jobs,” Riccio continues, “so we’re viewing this as we can bring in more employees if we have more restaurants going.” 

Sharkey and Riccio are bringing three of those restaurants to Northwest D.C.

At the beginning of the year, the couple announced a second location of Pow Pow would open at 1250 I St. NW. The original Pow Pow, which specializes in plant-based Asian comfort food, is located on H Street NE. Some of the most-popular dishes include Reuben egg rolls, the “Natalie Porkman” with sweet and sour pork seitan, grilled pineapple, and veggies, and trolley fries topped with  kimchi, cashew cheddar sauce, cilantro, Korean ketchup, and togarashi mayonnaise. 

While running Pow Pow, Sharkey and Riccio began experimenting with making classic American backyard eats without meat. Bubbie’s Plant Burgers began as a pop-up operating out of Rock & Roll Hotel before the music venue closed. The concept, focused on burgers, fries, and chicken sandwiches, was enough of a hit that they began searching for a brick-and-mortar location and settled on a yet-to-be-announced site in Adams Morgan. Bubbie’s should open there in late 2021.

Past dishes have included the “No Diggity” ballpark-style hot dog that’s actually a carrot topped with plant-based pork belly bacon bits, shredded cheddar, pickles, ketchup, and mustard; a “Mangia Roll” with fried cashew mozzarella balls on a toasted roll with red pepper marinara sauce, basil, and parmesan dust; and chicken fingers with sesame ranch and agave mustard dips. 

Even the cheese is plant-based on Riccio’s menus. She makes them all, as well as the patties and other proteins through Vertage, her burgeoning spinoff wholesale and retail company. She’s been selling her products to other restaurants in the District, including fellow plant-based restaurants sPACYcLOUd Lounge in Adams Morgan and Fare Well on H Street NE. The company should fully launch in 2021. 

Riccio eventually dreams of opening a plant-based market with cases and shelves stocked with Vertage meats and cheeses. The market opening is slated for further down the line, along with the openings of two other plant-based restaurants: Cenzo’s Upper Westside, a New York-style Italian sandwich and pizza shop, and Tacos Dios offering tacos, burritos, and salads. 

Since Sharkey can’t stop iterating new plant-based concepts to launch in the District, the duo are opening an incubator kitchen at 1829 M St. NW in December. Plant Food Lab will test drive new ideas in increments of about six months to a year to suss out what sells. Bubbie’s Plant Burgers will be the first concept to debut and only pick-up and delivery will be available. In about a year, Plant Food Lab will add dine-in seating.

“As we grow and we bring on other chefs, they might have a concept that they may want to test run before it goes out in the world,” Riccio says, anticipating that they’ll need to quickly build their team as she also focuses on Vertage. “There’s going to be a day when I can’t do everything and that day is coming very soon. Hopefully we’ll bring in sous chefs that genuinely want to work their way toward having a restaurant. If we can show it works here, it’ll be easier to get investors down the road.”