When Richard Aronson’s father, Larry, opened the first My Pi Pizza in 1971 across from Loyola University on Chicago’s Far North Side, vegans weren’t quite a “thing” in the Windy City. Now, 50 years later, vegan orders make up the fastest-booming part of this business.
Richard opened his Bucktown location of My Pi in 2000, but it wasn’t until his general manager switched to a vegan diet that these options landed on his radar. In the early 2010s, My Pi debuted its vegan pizza. “I remember getting a 20-pound case of vegan cheese, and it’d last a month,” Richard recalls. “Now, we get numerous cases delivered every week. It really took off, and it’s been one of our biggest growth areas.”
A Co-Branded Concept
On the My Pi menu, vegans can choose from two crust options, crafted with skills honed over multiple generations. Founder Larry was a fourth-generation baker; the family brought its know-how to America from Belarus in 1905. When building the new vegan menu, offering deep-dish vegan pizza felt like a no-brainer. “We saw that people couldn’t get vegan deep-dish, and we’re one of the best deep-dishes in Chicago,” Richard says. “Our crust and sauce has always been vegan, so it was just a matter of finding the best-suited vegan cheese. And the vegan cheeses have improved drastically over the years.”
Richard, meanwhile, co-branded My Pi with a second concept he created, L’il Guys, which offers high-quality deli sandwiches—and allows for more variety on the vegan menu, too. He started this side of the business as an alternative for the highly processed, preservative-packed deli meats sold in many sandwich purveyors. Now, vegans can build their own ’wiches with a plethora of veggies, breads and standout spreads like sriracha hummus, or add on sides, like vegan garlic bread or salads, to round out the meal.
To spread the word about its popular vegan menu options, My Pi also participates in the local Chicago Vegandale festival, which Richard has witnessed explode over the years. “It’s indicative of what’s going on in the vegan world,” he says. “Downtown, in Grant Park, they have more than 100 vendors, and probably 90 of them are selling food. They all open at 11 a.m., and by 11:30, every single vendor has a line 30 people deep for the next seven and a half hours. It’s incredible.”
Building a Fan Base
Despite its diversity, when it comes to the vegan menu, pizza remains the hottest seller. To source vegan-friendly Italian-style sausage (the Windy City’s go-to topping), My Pi works with Upton’s Naturals, a Chicago-based company just down the street. It’s a seitan-based product with a short, pronounceable ingredient list, which Richard and his customers appreciate. “There’s so much more variety than there was—and it’s tastier and more natural,” Richard says of vegan products’ evolution. “The demand is there, so the products are coming. Both big companies and independents are moving to cleaner labels, as there’s a big call for better ingredients. Our vegan sausage—I’m not even vegan, and I like it enough to have it on regular pizzas!”
After testing many cheeses before launching its vegan pizzas, Richard chose Daiya, which could supply the amount needed for his super-busy store and which also has improved its own trailblazing products in recent years. “We got a lot of great compliments on it,” Richard says. “We wanted to find the best cheese—even though we go lighter on the vegan cheese than ‘normal’ pies, it’s still a deep-dish. We also use GoVeggie Grated Parmesan on top to give the right look and flavor—but that’s used more as a spice than a cheese.”
Also in recent years, My Pi started shipping its pies through Foodydirect, which is now Goldbelly, and that side of the business took off like wildfire in the pandemic. Its vegan deep-dish, popular for both local and nationwide-shipping orders, has proven to be a standout seller. “Vegan deep-dish way outsells the thin-crust, and our No. 1 topping is the vegan sausage—it’s probably on 30% to 40% of the vegan pizzas we sell,” Richard reports. “Overall, our vegan menu is becoming a larger and larger portion of sales—one day recently, we had a day where half of all orders before 5 p.m. were vegan. We’re getting so much growth through vegan customers, and they’re telling their friends. We see so many, new and returning!”
Want to know more about My Pi Pizza? Check out the September 2021 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine, where we induct My Pi into our Pizza Hall of Fame.
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