MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and as the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.
If you told me a decade ago that you were going to Hatboro, Pennsylvania and you didn’t grow up there or didn’t have family in the area, I would have asked you, with teenage disdain: “Why?”
A small town with a population currently around 21,000 and a half-mile-long main drag, Hatboro—one of the towns where I grew up—was not a destination. To me, it always seemed like a place where many people who lived there did so just because their parents did, as did their parents before them; generations and extended families shuffled around the small radius of a township where many teachers in the school system were, at one point, also its students.
Approximately 20 miles from Philadelphia, the town is perhaps better known to train riders for whom it’s the second-to-last stop on a rail line, a ride that takes about an hour. I watched parades on Hatboro’s main street; I grew up reading Tiger Beat in its CVS. But by the time I was in high school, Hatboro was like a place time forgot—a stretch of thrift stores and mom-and-pop restaurants buoyed by the ever-busy Wawa.
Unlike the quiet but long-standing stores that made me wonder how they stayed in business, the restaurant space at 101 North York Road was a revolving door. I originally encountered it as the Portuguese restaurant where I first tasted bacalao, or salt cod, but after a short run, it had closed by 2007. From at least 2012 to 2013, it was an American-style restaurant called The Little Corner Kitchen. It wasn’t surprising to see the storefront empty, so when a restaurant called LUHV Factory & Vegan Bistro opened five years ago, I thought: It’ll be gone soon too.
Change has finally come to Hatboro, though. Single-family homes are still the majority, but apartments, condos, and lofts have sprouted next to the nearby train stations, clearly angling for city commuters. Green spaces turned into parking lots and big box stores bordered by fast-casual chains, creating more options than ever before. As I’ve learned through late-night Instagram deep-dives, people I graduated high school with have returned to the area post-college, buying homes and creating lives that involve local boutique fitness, breweries, and green juices.
Who lives in Hatboro is changing, it seems: Demographic estimates from the Census suggest the area is getting younger, with a median age of 40.5 years in 2019 compared to 42.2 in 2011. With that comes a change in what people want; a few storefronts away and preceding LUHV, a yoga studio-meets-juicery called Nourishing Storm filled the space of an old lingerie shop.
I was wrong about LUHV. Five years later, the bistro run by Silvia Lucci and her chef husband Daniel is not only still open, it's thriving. Having grown up in Argentina, the Luccis were heavy meat eaters who have run restaurants for the past 24 years. But after having a stroke in 2012, Silvia went vegan and committed her life to sharing vegan food—which is what brought the Luccis, who live nearby, to the Hatboro storefront.
During their tenure in town, Silvia has seen not only the new developments and the influx of millennials, but also a shifting mindset in her customer base. I talked to her about how LUHV made vegan food work in Hatboro, against all odds, and what its success—in this nondescript town that’s like so many others—says about the changing makeup of suburbia. As people move out of cities to make new lives for themselves, the towns around them are remade, too. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
We have had restaurants all our lives, but this was almost like a side project that I got involved with. The background is that I had a stroke, and as I became vegan and as veganism became a really important part of my life, we packaged this food and started selling it. There was a natural progression that went from selling it in local markets to selling in Whole Foods, and in that transition, we opened this factory in Hatboro in 2016.
People would come to me almost worried because there had been other restaurants here, but they all failed in a period of a year or two. They were like, “This place has such bad luck,” and it almost scared me. We have 2500 square feet, from which almost 2000 are dedicated to the factory. It was a little corner that we said, “We'll open the front [as a restaurant].” It felt like it was going to be not a good idea.
There's an app called Happy Cow that can find places around you that are vegan; we would put ourselves, and the next store would be in Philadelphia. We're located next to a McDonald's, and everybody was like, “That's not a town for vegan food.” But at the same time, I want to mainstream veganism, and if you want to mainstream veganism, you need to go to the place where veganism wouldn't be. New York and LA are kind of easy; Hatboro was not that good [for vegan food]. Once they try the food, they don't care—it tastes good.
The last five years, I’ve seen a movement of—I'm gonna say the word—millennials moving from the city into these small little towns. There's a train station right there; they created these gorgeous high-end apartments; they just made a new school. If you're going to get married and you live in the city, then this may be a very tempting place for you to come and raise your kids with a little bit of yard, without having to spend millions of dollars in these fancy areas. But they haven't lost their ideology.
The interesting thing is most of my customers in Hatboro are not vegan, but there is a transformation: I feel like there has been a change in how people perceive healthy food in the last decade. We were very lucky because they were trying to support us as the kind of business that they wanted. We have the vegan, the organic, the compostable and sustainable, so there was that image that we were a good business to support, but then the surprise was that our food was amazing—that grasped Hatboro. We were maybe bad for one month when we got all scared with COVID, but we have been doing record months since June of 2020.
I remember four years ago, the realtor came to us and said, “When everybody wants to move here, I bring them to your place, and the first thing they say is, ‘oh my god, they have a vegan place.’” They go to [the nearby yoga and juice place] Nourishing Storm, they come to me, they have three or four yoga places. Two weeks ago, I had a new customer who was moving between here and I don't know what other town. He was from California, and he said, “Having a vegan place made it easy for me.” You can see that it's not just us; it's like there is a change in the people.
At the same time, most of our crowd are local people. People know that you do good—we support the community, we donate, we are part of the community—and they know that you're good for their town. The kind of people that come to my place are people that believe in global warming and people that believe in taking care of the planet and taking care of themselves as healthy people. It's a very symbiotic relationship between the town that appreciates what you're doing, and we appreciate it.
The township itself was supportive; they were making it easy for us to come here. Hatboro is a place where people are starting to come to shop. I give credit to the people that deserve it—which is the people of the township that have been carefully building this town, supporting businesses that were coming that were helping that image. I keep telling people: Look at this, look what they're opening—that means there is somebody here that wants it.
I didn't have business school; I'm a sociologist. I became a business person [because] it was kind of like, okay, I got to do this, and then it became so big. We won awards: We won the Best of Philly, we won sixth-fastest growing company in the region. [As we’ve grown], I wanted to have the control of what I wanted to do, so I had to do it without investment because I didn’t want to have to justify myself.
After my stroke, my life shocked me to my tooth and I was lucky enough that I was able to survive. That kind of thing changes your life. Now I [understand] you don't have to have a company where the only goal is profit. You can make some profit and have a good life—and then be part of change. We don't have to just take care of the future; we need to make up for the past. That's what I felt that this company was for me: I wanted to show my children and peers, you can have a business, still have a profit, and still do it right.
The stroke really put a hold in. If you go to my store, the only decorations that I have are three doors, and what I said to people is that you come into veganism through three doors: the health door, the environmental door, or the ethical door. Whatever door you came in, you're going to now [be] with people that feel like this, that think like this, and then you can [know] the other ones. I came for health; I had to be healthy, and my husband created these amazing foods. But then I discovered that I don't want to hurt any animal and I don't want to destroy any inch of the planet for me to survive.
It was growth, and that feels bad because I'm so old to be growing. I should have done better earlier on, and that's why, for me, this is so meaningful. I believe we can change the world by the way we eat, and that's what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life. You don't have to be vegan, but at least one day when you come into my store, that much air gets cleaner, that much planet is saved.
As we speak, I'm in the process of buying a property in South Philly. I'm going to have what I would call the “LUHV model.” Because of the conditions of the place in Hatboro, we have limitations on what [we can] do, but during 2020, when there was so much extra time, I actually franchised. We have several people that are committed to open a franchise, but the first one, I want to open myself and run it in a perfect place. Our food is amazing, but we [also] represent something that I think the next generation wants to be part of.
We are opening a new factory, so we're moving it from Hatboro to another place. We’ve heard people saying, “You're not leaving,” and the township people even came. I will never leave Hatboro because I learned about what people want. I love [cities], but it's different; the people are different, the loyalty's different, and the community is different. It's them who make LUHV.
I will never leave Hatboro—I couldn't do that to them.
Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.