How vegan dining popups found homes at an East County mall and continue to grow despite a global pandemic
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.
Vanessa Corrales of Split Bakehouse was a key player in unifying the vegan business at Grossmont. She’s an exuberant spirit found both twirling rainbow cotton candy at events and hustling in the moonlight rolling croissants for early coffee shop deliveries.
The bakery, once actually split between vegan and non-vegan pastries, announced in October that they were going 100% vegan. Everything is made from scratch, even the vegan butter, milk, and egg. Corrales offers residential and commercial delivery of seasonal pastries and opened her doors to the public mid-November—just in time for pie season!
The open-air patio is one of the most peaceful spots in the mall. The towering palms and the melody of water cascading over a geometric black stone will soon be joined by people crunching through Split’s raspberry dark chocolate ganache cruffin and savoring the violet hues of her ube galette.
When the FFNM was first conceived, bringing North County’s El Veganito down south was one of the main goals. Victor Gamboa’s popular Oceanside Sunset Market booth proved equally enticing to La Mesa crowds.
Locals will no longer need to wait for the first Friday of the month to get their Adobada Tacos with seasoned soy under chopped onions and cilantro, or a Bee-fast Burrito brimming with potatoes, scrambled tofu, cheese, and chipotle cream.
At the Grossmont location, Gamboa is introducing new items like seitan based Asada folded in corn tortillas or rolled with rice, beans, pico, and cream in a burrito.
El Veganito’s popular Champurrado, a warm and richly spiced chocolate and pinole (coarse ground maize) beverage was a favorite of the night market. With temperatures finally falling in San Diego, Gamboa is bringing his version back to the people.
Many don’t yet know Juan Jose Malo, but for those lamenting the loss of OleriCultura, Malo was sous chef to OleriCultura’s mother pop-up, Dos Tierras.
The plant-based cevicheria booth swathed in ocean blues offers a vegan menu of ceviche and agua chiles. Both are cool dishes cooked in the acidity of citrus, but agua chiles takes it a step further with a punch of a chili marinade or chili water. Served as tacos or tostada, Mariscos NoMar, will be one of the few establishments to veganize such dishes in San Diego.