Pura Vegan: Kitchen 17

Like others in the vegan space, Jennie Plasterer, co-owner of Chicago-based Kitchen 17, started off in the nonprofit arena before she realized that vegan food was a much more enjoyable—and still an effective—means of activism. Now, she’s helping change the world, one bite at a time.

Plasterer joined the pizzeria in 2015, a couple of years after its initial opening, but business soared to new heights during the pandemic, when it started shipping its vegan deep-dish pizzas nationwide. “Selling people vegan food, you get to be a happy, pleasant ambassador, showing people they don’t have to give up all the delicious foods they’re fond of,” Plasterer says. “The deep-dish pizza was a hit right off the bat. I guess that, with us being in Chicago, it was always going to be the thing people were most excited about.”

In-House Innovations

At its modest Chicago brick-and-mortar location, Plasterer subscribes to the belief that “a large menu is a happy menu,” so there are two other crust types (pan and New York-style) on offer, as well as a wide variety of burgers, seitan-based sandwiches, desserts, salads, and appetizers like the best-selling cauliflower wings. Recently, Plasterer notes she has also been “not-so-secretly” working on a new mac-and-cheese menu.

However, despite Kitchen 17’s impressive variety, the deep-dish pizza offers the perfect showcase for its housemade sausage, pepperoni and cheese. For Plasterer, the decision to make her own cheese came down to keeping prices affordable, as well as a general dissatisfaction with the taste of the products on the market back when she joined the company.

“A big part of our process has been learning how to make our own cheese in bulk, in a way that’s repeatable, and that the staff enjoys working with and that bakes really well,” Plasterer explains. “The recipe has evolved a lot. We use a fresh, local soy milk, curdle it so it thickens up, and slow-cook it with spices, tapioca starch and a little oil. It’s a very simple recipe, as many of the best things are. And the joy of making it fresh is that we don’t need to add preservatives.”

The Pandemic Pivot

When the pandemic hit, Kitchen 17 (like many restaurants) found itself at a crossroads. Ironically, the pizzeria was already gearing up for a big announcement in March 2020—that it would offer frozen pizzas to go for pickup and delivery to the Chicago area and greater Illinois. But the team suddenly had to adapt, and fast, when shutdown orders hit the Windy City. During one fateful late-night stretch, the team created an online store with five deep-dish varieties at 3 a.m.—offering them nationwide to cater to an entire country of pizza lovers suddenly stuck at home. “By 8 a.m., we’d sold 80 pizzas,” remembers Joe Mertz, Kitchen 17 co-owner.

“Which was great,” Plasterer chimes in. “A couple hours later, we’d sold a couple hundred, which was also great.” But, by the end of the day, the business had sold a couple thousand—and started to sweat a little.

“Within three days, we brought all of our employees back and gave them more hours than before [the pandemic], as well as hired more people,” Mertz says. “We were really grateful for the support of the customers. We sold 3,000 pizzas in the first month!”

Plasterer notes that customers coast to coast enjoy ordering Kitchen 17’s deep-dish pizzas for special events like family gatherings. In the summer of 2021, the pies made their debut on the online vegan grocer GTFO It’s Vegan, where they sold out in the first day. “We have a lot of people sending us messages saying, ‘I’m not vegan, but this is damn good!’” Plasterer says. “It’s always extra-heartwarming when someone has stepped out of their comfort zone and they enjoy it enough to keep coming back. There’s nothing more exciting when people receive your food and get happy!”

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Movers and Shippers

Now that the Kitchen 17 team has tapped into an entire nation of potential pizza fans, there’s a lot in the works at this thriving female-helmed enterprise. With such a runaway hit in the deep-dish shipping side of things, the company looks toward optimizing its wholesale operations.

The owners remain invested in the physical restaurant (located just south of Wrigley Field, in the Lake View East neighborhood of Chicago), but the small space isn’t ideal as a production facility. So they purchased an old newspaper building in Plasterer’s hometown of Huntington, Indiana, which will comfortably fit both the pizzeria’s intense production needs as well as her sister Lorry’s media production company, Smiley Face Media, which handles much of Kitchen 17’s content, branding, packaging and marketing.

The team created an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for its ambitious plans, which entail not only a pizza making factory, but The Newsroom (located in the old newsroom of the building)—a plant-based restaurant and co-working space. Long-term dreams even include a wild mushroom farm, and adding greenhouses on the rooftop, with space for rooftop dining and events. The master plan, according to the campaign: “to bring healthy, fresh, delicious plant-based foods to all the hard-to-reach places: small towns, public schools, nursing homes, hospitals…everywhere we can, one step at a time.”

In the interim, Plasterer says, “It’s going to be an interesting couple of months,” as they toggle between two locations while making the transition. “We’re closing the restaurant Mondays and Tuesdays, because we need more production days.”

However, Mertz adds, they’ve expanded retail operations by partnering with All Day Kitchens, self-described as “the world’s first distributed restaurant platform.” The partnership will greatly expand the radius of Kitchen 17’s delivery operations around Chicago and its suburbs, and allow customers to get those deliveries even on the days the restaurant is closed for production, while expanding delivery hours on days the restaurant is open.

A Family Affair

Ultimately, Kitchen 17 would love to land its products in grocery stores all over the country, especially in faraway California, where a lot of loyal fans already reside. “As much as it’s been fun to ship pizzas all over the country, it’s extremely unsustainable in terms of packaging, cost to the consumer, and everything else,” Plasterer laments. Grocery store shipments would equal much less hassle and expense. And, by next year, the company is looking to sell its cheese and pepperoni to restaurants, helping spread the vegan-pizza gospel.

Clearly, there is a lot of growth in the works for Kitchen 17, but Mertz emphasizes that, until now, it’s all been accomplished with a small but dedicated team (as of June, only 12 people were on staff). “We’re hiring more people, and we like them to feel a sense of control in the business—that they’re listened to and being compensated fairly for the work,” Mertz explains.

“Our folks are heroes,” Plasterer says. “We’re very lucky to have them. And I think restaurants are like children—every year they age, they can take care of themselves a little more.”

Amid all of the expansion and ambitious plans, one gets the feeling that the company will always treasure its hands-on, scrappy, grassroots approach. “We’ve been expanding a lot and there’s been a lot of growth, and we have some large ambitions for the next couple of years,” Mertz admits. “But we’ve also been doing this all with a handful of employees that are a very tight-knit community. We’re still a very small business.”

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