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July 20, 2023
Community. Compassion. Convenience. Those three words form V Marks the Shop's mission and motto, and they're an apt description of this Black-owned, queer-owned vegan retailer's offerings. We'll add passion, innovation and accessibility to the list.
Since co-founding Philadelphia's first 100% vegan grocer, Carmella Lanni and Carlo Giardina have pivoted their business model multiple times to better serve the community. Lately, V Marks the Shop has weathered hurdles that would take most small retailers down, but these two continue to push forward, evolve and innovate. Lanni shares their story.
Carmella Lanni: We were living in New York City. I was working the corporate life; Carlo worked in social services. We were living a vegan lifestyle, and I always joked about opening a café or bakery someday. I'd worked in digital commerce and digital media for about 20 years and was also finishing grad school, and I got burned out. Then I decided to go for a vegan lifestyle coaching certificate.
We went to a vegan conference in 2015, and the last session was on business and vegan entrepreneurship. At the end, they asked if anybody had any questions. Carlo got up in front of everyone and said we were opening a vegan grocery store in Philadelphia. I was like what…? Then he told me, "If I don't put it out there, it's not going to happen."
CL: We launched as a pop-up business in the fall of 2015. We didn't move to Philadelphia until 2016, but we started hosting events, including vegan flea markets, around the city and suburbs to build recognition for our shop and connect with other vegan businesses and customers. We did retail popups, sold at events and sold online, so we were the first vegan grocer in the Philadelphia area.
We also got involved with grassroots organizations and nonprofits, so some events were fundraisers. We'd either charge no vendor fee or have the vendor fee go to charity. The goal was to get people to see the value in supporting vegan businesses and see the contributions we make to the local economy. We wanted to show that the vegan lifestyle is about more than just food—it's about accessibility for all.
CL: We're traditional in the sense of a neighborhood corner store. We have two spaces in one. The front is the grocery store, and the back is for community activities. We do "Something Saturdays," which could be a sampling, vendor popup, DJ, family arts-and-crafts, drag queen or drag king story time. We also let community groups use the rec space for free.
CL: Mostly packaged items, but a small bit of produce. We launched our own prepared foods line in February—vegan mac 'n' cheese, lasagnas, salads, soups. We're in the process of renting a commercial kitchen space, where we're going to work on sandwiches and wraps. We also work with other vegan suppliers. Right now, we are not every day with our prepared foods, so having folks supplement our grab-and-go fridge is great.
We also have a [mail-order] Vegan Snax Box at different price points. Tell me what you want to spend, what your allergens are and whether you want savory or sweet, and we'll accommodate.
CL: We did the flea market every other month for four years, so even after we opened the store. We'd have 20 to 30 vendors at a time. It was a lot of work, but we had support from other vegan businesses and organizations. But I got burnt out in December 2019, like, I can't do this anymore.
CL: We didn't close the store, we just closed to public shopping. We moved online for pickup or delivery for the first year and three months. We had a lot of people angry at us, but we were a two-person operation packing up to 50 or 60 orders a day.
We also had to take on increased minimums and surcharges from our distributors and deal with increases in the cost of goods because of supply chain issues. This affected our grab-and-go suppliers because they couldn't get ingredients.
Then at the end of 2021 and into 2022, I had severe health issues that took me out for nine months. I had four surgeries in 2022. Because Carlo was doing everything himself and because of the way the world was, people weren't shopping at small stores as much because of pricing. The assumption is that vegan is more expensive, and we've been trying so hard to fight that stereotype.
Finally, I said, you know what? We're pivoting! We're not going to carry Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Go get those brands at Target or Walmart—I'm not going to compete with them. I will get you products you've never seen before.
CL: I tried to fix everything myself. I got only one grant during COVID because I didn't want to be beholden to a loan. I'd never asked for anything, but we were hitting a wall, so in February, I launched a GoFundMe for the business. I hated asking for help, but my friends said, "If you don't ask, we don't know." Well, that's true. Now we're about 70% toward our goal, and it has actually brought in new customers.
CL: We are paring down our assortment. Our three biggest categories are cheese and meat alternatives and candy, and we're moving away from bigger, better-known brands, getting people to know smaller makers and bringing in more international makers. My goal is to have a small cheese shop within the business.
We are trying to rebuild because last year really took us out, and I feel more confident about our new direction. I will assume 90% ownership very soon. Carlo will still have a piece, but he'll be more of an employee running the grab-and-go line. I hope to hire someone to help him.
CL: I'm proud of the community connections we've made. We've built our store as a vegan store for all, and we have a model of community, compassion, convenience. We live by that and take an ethical stance when we can, both through the products we bring in and the organizations we work with. We always make sure our ethics are in check. We didn't open a shop to hop on a trend and see monetary potential, or I wouldn't have kept pushing with how bad things are. We are very passionate about this.
Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and NewHope.com. Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music.
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