Orchard Grocer Offers Compassionate Convenience in NYC

🍒 The following feature appears in Issue 03 of Selva Beat. Grab your copy here.  🍒

In 2001, sisters Erica and Sara Kubersky opened Moo Shoes, a cruelty-free footwear store that boasts bags, t-shirts, wallets, and books on the Lower East Side in NYC. Sixteen years later, along with Joya Carlton, they opened a deli and grocery store, joining that pantheon of Manhattan’s long-standing Jewish culture. While everything in Orchard Grocer is vegan and palm oil free, they hit all the right notes of an authentic deli — they’ve got the letter board menu, subway tiles on the walls, a display case full of cheese, and a down-to-earth vibe with no pretentiousness to be found. Their authenticity transcends the aesthetic — they truly care about the products they make and sell: sourcing locally, vetting those vegan and palm oil free foods, and even making their own vegan butter in-house. We spoke with Erica about the inspiration of and processes behind Orchard Grocer, as well as how her Jewish cultural identity intersects with her vegan one.


Why a grocery store and deli?

As long-time vegans, food has always been something we have been pretty into. And also, as a vegan shoe store, probably the question that we get most often — after what were your shoes made out of — is what should I go eat? And there really weren’t any exclusively vegan restaurants right in our neighborhood, so we thought, let’s just bring this a little closer to home. My sister and I, who I have the store with, were born and raised in New York so the the idea of a little homage to old New York and deli was what felt most right to us.

From day one, you’ve been an eco-conscious business. What about the palm oil problem did you find most compelling?

It just seemed like the environmental destruction it was causing was just more than I could really bear. I’m vegan for ethical reasons — and for environmental reasons — so even though palm oil isn’t technically made out of an animal, it’s still affecting the environment, and it’s affecting many non-human animals. I thought to myself, if this is why I’m vegan, this is probably the same reason why I should be avoiding palm oil.

What has the customer response been?

We definitely have people who were thinking along the same lines as [us]. And they’re just happy that they can go into a store and not read a million labels; that we had done the research for them.

I still mess up because it’s just in so many things. Learning all the different terms [companies] use for palm oil, and all the things that they sneak it in, has been really eye opening for me. It’s like the way I look at veganism: I’ve been vegan now for 20 years, and I definitely went through some periods where I was super hard on myself about everything. But then I realized that, at some point, I’m just going to do the best that I can, and if I mess up every once in awhile, that doesn’t mean I’m not still trying – and that’s okay, too.

What is your main advice for businesses who want to be palm oil free but didn’t have the opportunity to start fresh like Orchard Grocer?

I totally understand it from a business side, so if you already stock items that have [palm oil], sell what you have. But, I think as far as cooking, we’re finding it very, very simple. Olive oils and coconut oils are just doing the same things for us that palm oil would have done. I imagine that it’s very hard for some bakers who have established recipes.

My advice is just to keep trying and [ask] people who they source their ingredients from, tell them about your concerns, and maybe they’ll start eliminating palm oil from the products that they use. I think the more we get our voice heard [,the better].

I walk into the deli for the first time, what should I get?

You can’t go wrong with our Edith, which is named after our very first cat that we ever had at Moo Shoes. It’s a bagel (which you can get gluten-free) with our own house-made cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that we also make in-house. That’s a real introduction. Then of course [while] sandwiches are being made, definitely browse the shelves. I think we have a pretty great pantry section and cheese refrigerator. Just watching how much it’s grown over the years — now I’m like, I have choices? This is insane. [laughs]

What is it like being vegan in New York?

I’m from Queens, originally. I went vegetarian as a kid, and I remember my parents trying to find restaurants to take me to. That was like 28 years ago; there weren’t that many places to choose from. Now I dream about brown rice and tofu, but at the time, I wanted something a little more fun. So, it’s just amazing to see all the different restaurants that have come up. We have a vegan version of everything.

 
 

Tell me about your experience with the intersection of Jewish culture and veganism.

I grew up in not a very religious family but a very culturally Jewish family. One of our big trips was, once a month, we would all visit the Lower East Side, where my maternal grandmother was born. But it was also where we went to set up for the holidays. It’s where we did all of our food shopping. I still remember the horrors of my mom getting gefilte fish and just being so horrified by the whole thing. [laughs]

And then when I started going in [this] direction — first vegetarian, then vegan... I mean, I was very lucky that my family was very supportive of it. I think they couldn’t argue with the facts, and they understood why I was doing it. One of the things that did upset my mom and my grandmother was that they thought I wasn’t going to be able to participate in our holidays. But then they quickly — hats off to them, because as a kid I hadn’t spent much time in the kitchen — they really went out of their way for me, and they found alternatives to everything that we were eating. One holiday, there was nothing [vegan], and the next holiday, there was seitan brisket and chopped liver made out of string beans. As the years went on they were like, okay, half the dinner is vegan. Then, all of a sudden, now our holidays are all 100% vegan. My brother [is] probably the only one who isn’t that excited about it. [laughs]

And the last thing that was the hardest [was] Yom Kippur — which is when you have to break the fast — which is one of my mom’s favorite holidays to host. So, for her it was always lox that was the big thing that she really didn’t want to give up, and now we’re supplying the carrot lox. Now she’s like, okay, you’ve given me everything I need.

🍩🍦 Interview conducted by Magdalena Antuña. Photography by Miachel Breton. Introduction by Magdalena Antuña and Brianna Carney.  🍦🍩