South Philly’s vegan grocer works hard to pack orders and lift up the community.


Photography by Albert Yee

Photography by Albert Yee


By Alexandra W. Jones

Things didn’t go as planned on V Marks the Shop’s first anniversary. 

Instead of enjoying a laidback gathering with customers, vegan corner store owners Carmella Lanni and Carlo Giardina found themselves caught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of March, busily filling customer orders, managing their rapidly changing inventory selection and hustling boxed deliveries out their shop’s front window.

They saw their first spike in orders the week of March 15 when Pennsylvania issued social distancing orders. Since then, it has been crazy, Lanni says.

“We’re in no position to be as organized as we usually are right now just because of the rate that orders are coming in,” she explains.

Clad in black balaclavas and blue plastic gloves, and disinfecting surfaces as frequently as possible, the pair jokes that the store has become V Marks the Warehouse since they shifted to a delivery- and pick-up-only system. Boxes sit where product display tables used to be and pickup orders chill in frozen display cases. The mom-and-pop grocers pack all orders by hand.

“For a two-person operation, to knock out 30 orders a day is a lot,” Lanni says. There’ve been a lot of early mornings and late evenings. Customers have been booking deliveries, mostly via Mercato[.com], for up to a week in advance. 

“I have to design reports and figure out how much bread we’re going to need 48 hours from now,” she says. “It’s really hard for me to forecast what we’ll need because everything’s changing so quickly.”

She has been running numbers to determine what inventory shipments she might need to adjust almost every day. They’ve been in constant communication with suppliers to fill depleting shelves.

“I’ve had to order more tofu than I ever imagined I would need,” she laughs. The week Pennsylvania ordered all non-essential businesses to close, the shop sold around 200 units, she says.

Overall, sales have spiked for the shop.

Photography by Albert Yee

Photography by Albert Yee

“But,” Lanni says, “it’s not the way I would prefer to make them.”

Two weeks before the state issued its first COVID-19 orders, Giardina and Lanni were sitting comfortably in their store’s backroom “events area,” recalling their journey onto the vegan grocer scene. 

“We started off as bloggers,” Giardina explains, under the name “The Food Duo.” Over the years, as their diets shifted from omnivorous to vegetarian to vegan, the content of their blog followed suit. 

The blog led them on quests to try new vegan products, restaurants and recipes, Carlo says. Along the way, they stumbled into several all-vegan grocery stores like Rabbit Food in Austin, Texas, and Food Fight! in Portland, Oregon. 

The trips left an impact.

“It was terrific that you would be able to walk into the store and not have to think, and get whatever you want,” Giardina recalls. “Versus going to three, four or five different stores to do your shopping.”

Soon they found themselves talking about starting up a place of their own.

“We just thought it would be great if we had our own business and, you know, we could do something we’re passionate about,” he says. “Something we love.”

In 2015, they announced they were taking the dive at a vegan bloggers conference called Vida Vegan Con—it was the conference’s last year, Giardina explains. 

“Anybody and everybody who was vegan went to this. This was, like, the thing,” he says. “I felt so inspired because Carmella and I were already talking about starting the store. So at the very last panel, which got a little maudlin because everybody was like, ‘this is the last one, we’re not going to do it anymore,’ they said: ‘Anyone want to say anything?’ And I said, ‘We’re gonna miss it and by the way, we’re gonna open up a vegan store in Philadelphia!’”

“And I said, ‘We’re opening up a vegan store in Philadelphia?’ ” Lanni chimes in.

“But you were okay with it,” Giardina quickly turns to Lanni to clarify.

“I was,” she laughs. “I was just shocked that he said it.”

Giardina has no regrets.

“I figured you have to do that,” he explains, “because then you can’t turn back.”

A few blocks off Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, V has the feel of an old-school neighborhood corner store. 

The shopping area is packed with hundreds of locally made treats. Everything from vegan roasts and specialty cheeses to locally made vegan soaps and zero-waste dishwashing blocks. It walks the line between a convenience store and a grocery store, Lanni says, although she prefers to be referred to as the former.

“We like the term convenience,” she explains. “We make being vegan convenient for people.”

Lanni knows every product they carry inside and out. She points to some products in one of their refrigerator cases.

“Philly Tempeh is a relatively new company,” she says. “The owner does a soy-based tempeh, but what he’s known for is the non-commercial tempeh, which is done with chickpeas. A few restaurants in the area have started using it. It’s really good stuff,” she says.

She likes to learn about the companies they work with because they communicate with some of the vendors directly.

“There’s Eat Nice from Mount Airy. They do vegan ravioli—they use walnuts to replicate meat. It’s a really good product,” she continues, moving through the rows. “Amira’s Delights—she’s out of West Philly—she is a science teacher and teaches a baking-with-science program at the Free Library. She has a line of vegan cookies and is really cool to talk to.”

Lanni went vegan for health reasons, she says. Afterward, she and Giardina began to explore the world of plant-based eating options.

The two met in 2005 in an AOL chatroom. Back when people put their interests and hobbies in their profiles, Lanni says.

“He liked the same music, he liked a lot of the same art that I liked, he had a cool picture,” she remembers. “Even his username was cool.” 

She sent him a quick message, but he was getting offline and asked if she’d like to chat on the phone instead.

“We ended up talking for, like, three hours,” she says.

They met in-person a week later and have been together ever since.

They came to Philly to get away from New York City. Lanni was a lifelong New Yorker, and Giardina had spent about half his life there.

They started operating the store online in 2017, but their South Philly storefront only officially opened last year. They ended up there, Lanni says, because local community association leaders took them out for drinks after they posted a Kickstarter video.

“We liked Philly. We used to come down here on weekends,” Giardina says. “Over time, we just figured this would be a good city to do this in—it’s ready for it.”

When pandemic restrictions aren’t in place, Giardina and Lanni are also regarded by many locals as the king and queen of vegan gatherings in Philly. 

Photography by Albert Yee

Photography by Albert Yee

The pair hosted their first vegan gathering in Philly in 2016, a year before starting V, because they wanted to figure out how they could become a part of the community in Philly. They hosted a Philly mac-and-cheese-making contest.

“And then we started doing the pop fleas,” Giardina remembers.

They hadn’t seen anything like Vegan Shop-Up, an all-vegan pop-up market in Brooklyn, around town, and they thought that Philly Pop Fleas could fill the niche.

At the end of 2019, they rebranded Philly Vegan Pop Fleas to be Philly Vegan Events, which not only allows them to host their own events but also to share what other vendors are doing.

“It was never our intent to be the people who do vegan events in town—we just wanted to meet people,” Lanni says, “and help small businesses get in front of customers.”

“They’re not involved in an unethical capitalist kind of system,” she says. “They’re just trying to make a living off of something that they love to do.”

According to Alana Ratliff-Johnson, vending with Philly Vegan Events has been great for her artisanal soap business, Soap by Alana.

“They exposed my business to an entire market of individuals that needed my products,” she says. While some soaps can include animal-derived ingredients like tallow, silk and beeswax, Ratliff-Johnson’s earn the “vegan seal of approval.”

“My soaps and body butters were plant-based from the beginning, and I hadn’t thought that it would be a necessity to an entire group of people until I came across Carmella, Carlo and V Marks the Shop,” she says. “There was one product, my lip butters, that were not vegan in the beginning, but after being exposed to this community, I was motivated to change my formula and swap my wax to a vegan-safe wax—it works much better, too.”

Jonay Prailow, an entrepreneur who runs a vegan Caribbean soul food catering business called Nourishing Our Mind, says working with V Marks the Shop not only exposed her to new customers but to new friends and mentors.

“I’ve personally learned a lot from both Carlo and Carmella from both a business and personal perspective,” she explains. “They’re very knowledgeable about what I like to call ‘vegan culture.’ ”

They’ve been her personal taste testers for the past two years she’s been in business. 

“I can count on them to give me honest feedback to help me hone my skills,” Prailow says. 

Both business owners say the shop owners’ personalities give the events they host a leg-up. 

“Carmella and Carlo are the perfect fusion of business and fun,” Ratliff-Johnson says. “They understand what it means to highlight their vendors, and they truly want to see everyone win.”

Usually, V tries to host an event every weekend in the back room of the shop, Lanni says—they’ve done cooking demos, drag queen and drag king story time, and arts and crafts days. They’ve also hosted parties in the store celebrating the Jewish holidays of Hanukkah and Purim.

Customer Allison Covey, a Center City resident, enjoys the effort Giardina and Lanni put into lifting up all the different sectors of the vegan community.

“It is wonderful to see the diversity of the vegan movement and to be able to connect with folks of different backgrounds through our shared interest in plant-based foods,” she says.

Off-site, V also hosts the Power of Color Market, which celebrates the contributions of vegans of color, and a monthly vegan Quizzo night at the board game shop Queen and Rook, which took place via Zoom in April in order to help raise money for employee wages while the shop was closed.

Typically, they try to put a charitable spin on all of their events. 

“Everything we do, we try to incorporate some sort of fundraiser or community activism,” Lanni explains.

Now rescheduled for the fall of 2020, $5 of every ticket to Philly Mac-Down will go to William Way LGBT Community Center. They also do a monthly tips for change initiative, wherein they pick an organization to give the tips to. The tips they raised in March went to PAWS. In mid-April, they were planning on sending their tips to a business affected by the shutdown.

“We try to give back where we can,” Lanni says, “to connect people and bring awareness.”

For many customers, this is what makes V so special.

“They’re not just lifting themselves up, but they’re lifting up a lot of other local small businesses as well,” says LJ Steinig, a customer of the store since 2017. “I really love that.” 

Steinig’s partner, Bart Everts, has been placing orders for pickup for their Upper Darby household for the last few weeks since the shutdown began. 

“It’s a weird time,” he acknowledges.

Usually they like to go in and chat as they shop, but that’s not an option these days.

“I don’t really get to talk to them or anything,” he says. “But it’s good to see their faces.” 

Lanni says many regular customers, like Steinig and Everts, have continued shopping with them since social distancing orders went into effect. She’s seen many customers placing orders for neighbors, and thanking the duo for staying open.

Photography by Albert Yee

Photography by Albert Yee

As she noted weeks before the pandemic shut down the city, Lanni says the vegan community in Philly is very vocal and very strong.

“I think people come together more here than I may have seen in other parts of the country,” she says. “Philly being a major city, it still has that small-town kind of vibe to it. People here are just willing to come together because they want to eat something vegan or be a part of something vegan. It’s been pretty amazing to see that.”

Ultimately, she says, it’s customer support that has kept her and Giardina going in these uncertain times.

“Ninety-nine percent of the customers have been amazing,” she says. One customer asked how she could support the shop and bought multiple gift cards. Others have been promoting the store on social media. Friends have been calling just to talk about what they’re feeling, offering a support network.

“It’s people like that encouraging us. If we didn’t have that local support, I don’t think we would be open,” she says.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Philadelphia local with a ‘heart for trash’ shares how he fell into cleaning and maintaining our region’s waterways.

Next Story

Teen entrepreneur feeds students by sewing and selling bags made from reclaimed fabrics.

Latest from #132 May 2020