When discussing which San Diego neighborhoods were the most vegan-friendly in the past, La Mesa never factored on the list. This changed in June 2019 when local nonprofit Vegan in San Diego (VSD) partnered with Grossmont Center to move the popular First Friday Night Market (FFNM) from North Park to East County. Full disclosure: I serve as chair of the board of Vegan in San Diego.
Like many of the groups that give hip neighborhoods allure, the vegan event had found their North Park site under new management and was promptly pushed out. In came Grossmont Center, a family-owned mall, small-scale enough to embrace new ideas and take what larger organizations may consider risks. Management can be found collaborating with business tenants and event coordinators for mutual success. Plus, Grossmont Center had an ample solution for the number one complaint heard about in North Park: parking.
Led by VSD’s founder and director of FFNM, Carly Morales, the move into East County was not taken lightly. FFNM surveyed their event crowd to find out where they were coming from and where they were willing to go. The numbers showed there was an audience east. Still, once the night market moved, it was overwhelming to see just how hungry the area was. FFNM quickly increased in size—from 11 vendors to 25.
Then March 2020 came and Covid-19 restrictions hit. Though nobody knew it at the time, March was the last FFNM of the year.
In that sudden stillness, an opportunity arose.
Even before Covid-19, Trevor Moore, Grossmont Center’s director of events and marketing, walked the VSD team through a vision of leasing future vacant stalls to FFNM vendors.
Many of the FFNM vendors dream of opening their own restaurants. In these precarious times, the lower overhead of a shared dining hall eases that step.
In February 2020, OleriCultura, a joint venture by Dos Tierras and Split Bakehouse opened the first all-vegan stall in the food court. Covid-19 redirected both partner’s attention and the stall quietly paused as they were just hitting their stride.
With the depths of the pandemic unclear, the food court closed for two months. Never passive owners, Moore seized the opportunity to give the court a makeover by removing 90’s neon and refreshing walls with soft whites and muted greens that complimented the vintage tile floor. The towering atrium was filled with fiddle leaf figs grounded by plumes of succulents propagated by Gary Plummer, father of a new vegan tenant and yes, former Chargers’ linebacker.
At dusk, market lights twinkle, “a nod to First Friday Night Market” explains Moore. Outdoor furniture pulled from the former Fuddruckers adds more Covid-friendly seating.
With events everywhere shut down, many FFNM vendor’s livelihoods ground to a halt. Grossmont Center wanted to help. “We had the opportunity to lease and we can't think of a better way than to bring back these vendors,” Moore says.
All-vegan burger concept, Veg’n Out announced they would take over OleriCultura’s stall in July. Moore sought input from VSD’s Morales and leased stalls to Mexican pop-up El Veganito and newcomer Mariscos NoMar.
The thousands who attended FFNM were thrilled and vegan-inclined mall employees are enjoying the new options as well.
While the uncertainty of Covid still looms, under California's Red Tier, food courts are allowed open at 25% capacity. Since the county fell back into the Purple Tier, food stalls remain open but seating is closed.
For now, the revived food court hopes to fill the vegan void left by the temporary closing of FFMN.
The popular vegan burger pop-up had been looking for a permanent space. Founder Grant Plummer explains, “While I didn’t know if I was ready, the circumstances forced me to be ready. I hadn’t considered the food court as I wanted my first location to be a stand-alone, but again, circumstances change, and the opportunity with low risk presented itself.”
The burgers are Veg’n Out’s main attraction. Crisp and seasoned Beyond Burger patties take on new life smothered in house sauce and grilled onions on a pretzel bun, or try one dripping with BBQ sauce and crowned with onion rings.
Beyond the burgers, Plummer offers seitan and soy drumsticks with an array of sauces or tossed in spicy buffalo with ranch dressing.
Veg'n Out has always made efforts to collaborate with other local vegan vendors. Pretzel buns are sourced from neighboring Split Bakehouse, cheese and pickles come from Scratch House (located inside Donna Jean), and the black bean patty is specially made for them by San Diego Tempeh.
Veg’n Out is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 to 7pm. Online ordering for pickup is available.