Whether due to seasonal shutdowns or permanent closures, the city has no shortage of depressingly dim restaurants and bars lately. So it was refreshing to see a welcoming splash of color on the door of one such establishment.
While the Valanni Social Club, at 1229 Spruce Street, has been in stasis for months due to COVID-19 restrictions, a small poster could be seen on its glass front door since the first week of December featuring the Creature from the Black Lagoon holding a meatball sub. It announces a new takeout business running out of Valanni: Monster Vegan.
Owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Ron Tadeo and Lauren Margaretta, the takeout-only business offering third-party delivery draws heavily upon Tadeo’s experience cooking Italian comfort food. The pair struck a deal with George Anni, the owner of Valanni, who also owns the building, to obtain the work space—and if Monster Vegan’s takeout sales continue to be robust, he’ll be a financial backer for an eventual expansion into a bar/restaurant in the existing space.
It didn’t hurt that Margaretta had served as the general manager at Valanni several years ago and that the couple previously established a proven business model while generating sales out of a commissary kitchen in Brewerytown almost solely through their Instagram account, @monsterveganphilly. Margaretta’s twin sister, Jenny, worked in property management for George Anni and other clients; she oversaw special events for Valanni until they closed. She helped pitch the deal to Anni and is also a co-owner of Monster Vegan.
As for many people in the pandemic economy, this was a plan hatched out of necessity. COVID-19 left Tadeo, a chef by trade, furloughed from a job at a dining hall at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had instituted a vegan dinner program in 2020. Margaretta, who left the restaurant industry after most recently serving as general manager at Tio Flores, saw a slowdown early in the pandemic at her job managing Airbnb rentals for Bespoke Stay.
Tadeo and Margaretta became vegans in 2012. Tadeo cites his experience at Penn as being critical to his development as a vegan chef.
“Being at Penn, it gave me full range to get whatever products I wanted and play around with them,” he says. He spent much of his spare time in the last year cooking vegan food at home. “It got the ball rolling, and here we are with Monster Vegan,” he says.
But why Monster Vegan?
That goes back to why they’re together.
Margaretta, who ran ’70s and ’80s punk rock and metal nights featuring horror movies at a New York club with Jenny in the early aughts, says she noticed Tadeo’s online dating profile because she saw he liked horror movies.
“What’s your favorite horror movie?” she asked.
He said, “They Live,” a 1988 classic about a drifter who discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that the rich and powerful are aliens concealing their true appearances to manipulate the general public.
It’s one of Margaretta’s favorite films as well. They met for a drink, and the rest is history.
For the restaurant, Tadeo explains, “It kind of ties into everything.”
“The love of horror films. Our sense of humor,” he says. “It’s almost like we don’t want to play it safe with our theme. We’re confident in the food that we put out, so let’s have a little fun with it.”
“The challenging part is almost in a sense, ‘Can I fool you?’”
— Ron Tadeo, Monster Vegan co-owner
But settling on the monster theme, Margaretta also saw a deeper meaning related to the pair’s love of animals, which led to them becoming vegan. “I kind of look at animal rights the way I look at those monsters—they’re shunned and misunderstood, though they’re sensitive beings,” she says.
The monster theme gave them a lot of room to play with marketing.
“We decided we have nothing to lose,” Margaretta says of their social media approach. “Let’s use monster hands and play a funny metal song in the background and be goofy as hell on Instagram and tag everyone and see if it catches on.”
The restaurant also blends their ideal comfort foods—cutlet sandwiches, meatball parmesan and pasta—with the ’80s horror they grew up with.
“It really comes back to being nostalgic,” Tadeo says.
Of course, striving for nostalgia comes with a caveat after radically changing one’s diet. Margaretta cites health consciousness as a major factor behind why she and her husband went vegan. Both of their fathers experienced health scares in recent years, and they see similar concerns at play for the high number of older non-vegans patronizing Monster Vegan.
Margaretta recounts one customer who, while raving about the vegan meatball parm, said, “I’m not vegan at all but I know this is cholesterol-free.”
Sara Britt, a corporate officer with PETA and longtime friend who informed Margaretta and Tadeo’s decision to go vegan, is happy to see her impact resonate further. “I think it’s what any activist is hoping for—that people will hear the information that you share and then, in turn, change their behavior and share it with others,” she says.
But sharing their zeal for vegan food hangs on Tadeo’s ability to adapt his skills and experience to their current diet.
“The challenging part is almost in a sense, ‘Can I fool you?’ ” Tadeo says, speaking to the intriguing part of the equation for him as a vegan chef.
Whereas before he would reach for butter or stocks enriched from a long simmer with roasted carcasses, he now has to swerve left.
Tadeo’s solution is two-fold. He goes with the better array of plant-based products now available such as Impossible Beef, used in the Kong Burger; Impossible Sausage, the base for the gravy on the Monstrosity cutlet sandwich; Beyond Sausage, for the sweet Italian sausage sandwich; and tofu, marinated in salt and lemon, for the “feta” in the roasted beet salad.
Then there’s doing what he’s always done as a chef.
“It’s going back to the basics and using good, quality ingredients,” he says.
For instance, he adds, “Pure extra virgin olive oil does wonders on pasta. It just brings out all the other ingredients.”
He’s using the surprising creaminess of oat milk to recreate the fatty sauce in a carbonara special he’s working on. To approximate the yolk of a runny egg, he’s applying some alchemy to the umami of tomatoes. For bacon, he’s crisping tofu infused with smoked paprika.
This is the same approach that has helped him win over friends who pine for the days when Tadeo would handle the definitely not-vegan grub for Eagles tailgates.
“He would smoke and grill incredible stuff for sandwiches,” Frank Anellia, a friend from Northeast Philly says. “Now he’s going strong with vegan takeout where you can’t even tell the difference if it’s meat or vegetables.”
That ability to take a leap comes down to trust with many family and friends.
Frank’s wife, Amy, points to how Tadeo has been cooking for them for years. “I just know that anything Ron cooks, he puts his heart into,” she says.
The heart involved helps take the fright out of Tadeo’s vegan food for anyone.