In our Pura Vegan series, we spotlight an all-vegan pizzeria that’s shaking up the food scene.
By the time Screamer’s Pizzeria opened in 2015, its owners, High Five Food and Drink, had already found success with an all-vegan concept: Champs Diner in Brooklyn. And Screamer’s, too, proved a hit with its first location in the borough’s Greenpoint neighborhood. In 2018, a second outpost followed, in Crown Heights. “Vegan was growing at the time [of our initial opening], especially in Brooklyn,” recalls Joy Strang, executive chef at Screamer’s Pizzeria. “We saw a need for an all-vegan pizza place.”
Luckily, the vegan community responded—and now the pizzeria also serves a healthy percentage of non-vegans with a full menu of plant-based pizzas and calzones (the Crown Heights location boasts a larger menu, with sandwiches, snacks and desserts). Recently, Strang sat down with PizzaVegan.com to discuss the secrets behind the success of Screamer’s—and how the concept has evolved into a vegan icon in Brooklyn and beyond.
A New Normal
Strang knows that when people think vegan, myths persist even today: that the food won’t taste good or will be too different than the “normal” foods people reach for. Or that “plant-based” equates to subsisting on a steady diet of spinach and kale. But Screamer’s is out to shatter those notions with a full menu of delicious, even decadent, vegan-approved eats.
“People come into our locations all of the time not knowing that we’re vegan—and sometimes when we tell them it is, they say, ‘Oh, no,’” Strang relates. “But we say, ‘If you try it, you realize it’s really not that different from any other pizza you eat, except that no animals were harmed in the process of making it.’ I think people have the misconception that it won’t taste normal.
"But the dough is a very classic New York-style dough, the same that’s made at any other pizzeria in the city (or anywhere else, for that matter), and the sauce is organically vegan. The toppings are somewhat different—we substitute seitan for meat products, and we use a coconut- and potato starch-based cheese. But mushrooms are mushrooms, onions are onions. People just don’t think about it that way!”
Feeding Mouths, Opening Minds
With all of the new cheese and protein alternatives hitting the market as the vegan category explodes, it’s a great time to be vegan. But the fast-changing landscape also requires plenty of homework and taste-testing from Strang and her team, who often try out new products to source the best ingredients available.
“Fortunately, we have such a reputation that a lot of vendors who are looking to have their product become more known in the vegan community will approach us and ask if we’d like to try out their stuff,” Strang explains. “We always keep an open mind—if the product is fantastic, we’ll use it! We often get a bunch of new protein options, cheese samples, even desserts like cookies. We always try to keep up with trends and incorporate things that make the most sense for our business.”
Keeping an open mind also trickles down to customers themselves—especially those aforementioned unsuspecting diners who enter the pizzeria without realizing it’s an all-vegan enterprise. But Strang has found that even people who aren’t vegan are often willing to chow down with an open mind. She estimates that non-vegans now comprise a full 20% of business.
“That’s encouraging—and, in general, we see a lot of people who have never tried us before (even though we’ve been around for a while) and really love it,” Strang adds. “Even people who aren’t vegan! We were voted one of the best pizza places in all of New York, so people will say, ‘Hey, let’s try it. Why not?’ That has been amazing to see.”
Making It Work
For pizzerias looking to offer vegan options, Strang advises trying the products first—making sure it’s something you’d want to eat before adding it to the menu. “I know that as a vegan I appreciate having vegan options at a lot of non-vegan places, but I feel like sometimes it’s an afterthought,” she says. “They think, ‘Let’s just put something together and people will buy it, because it’s the only vegan option we have.’ But if you put a little thought and care into it—just like everything else that you make—you’ll go a long way with the vegan audience. When I eat something that is really good at a non-vegan restaurant, I’m always super stoked about it!”
Meanwhile, the Screamer’s team knows that eating vegan may be only the tip of the iceberg for some customers in terms of their dietary restrictions. Therefore, the pizzeria remains mindful about other potential considerations, like customers who may be allergic to nuts or soy-free.
With more than 70,000 followers from around the world on Instagram (@screamerspizzeria), Strang marvels that “a small pizzeria in Brooklyn” could make such a strong mark on the social media scene (its stream of mouthwatering food pics certainly help). But nothing replaces the experience of stepping inside for a slice and being wowed firsthand.
“When people try it, there’s a lot of word of mouth—people come in all the time saying, my friend brought me this pizza or told me about this pizza,” Strang says. “Then it’s just about putting out a really consistent and delicious product every single day. People know they’re going to get something they love, and I think that’s what keeps us going.”
In terms of hot sellers, Strang believes that the Buffalo, with buffalo-style cauliflower, is probably the most approachable pizza on the menu, simply because so many New York pizzerias offer a similar pie. And that visual familiarity comforts customers who may saunter in without ever having had vegan pizza in their lives. The Screamer, a white pie with oyster and cremini mushrooms, is another big hit. “Our classic pepperoni is huge, too, since it’s so approachable, and we use a very good quality pepperoni from The BE-Hive, a small business in Nashville that makes all kinds of seitan products. It’s probably the best pepperoni out there.”
Ultimately, though some ingredients may be tweaked for animal-friendly purposes, Strang believes that vegan pizza can satisfy even hardcore carnivores. “Even though we are an all-vegan pizzeria, we try to make the vegan concept approachable for everybody,” Strang explains. “You won’t come in and see a bunch of things that don’t look familiar to you or that don’t look appetizing. We try to be as approachable as possible for all people—that’s always been our mode of operation.”
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