Serving Food with a Purpose
By Megan Stevens | Photography by Steven J. Pallone
Almost 10 years ago, on a car ride from New York City, Nick Ryan and Joel Capolongo imagined what it would be like to open up their own vegan café. Little did they know, their thoughts would begin to transform into reality only a half-year later.
They were headed home from a concert in the city when they decided to stop at a small café, which ultimately fueled their inspiration. On the ride back to Syracuse, they began to brainstorm and envision what their own vegan café could entail.
“We wanted a place where we not only could serve the vegan population, but also be customers,” Joel said.
A month later, Joel’s girlfriend walked into the brick building at 719 E. Genesee St. and saw a vacant spot that looked promising. She came back, reported the news to Joel and the next day, Nick and Joel spoke with the landlord. Things began to take off from there, and six months later, they served their first customer at Strong Hearts Café.
“[It was] being in the right place at the right time,” Joel said.
They decided they didn’t want to appeal to exclusively vegans, and would make their target audience simple: omnivores. Being the only vegan spot in town at the time, they knew it would be a “no brainer” to bring in the business of vegans. So, they decided to make their food taste so good that it would also appeal to those who weren’t vegetarian or vegan, making sure everyone felt comfortable with the menu choices.
Nick and Joel agree that only about 10 percent of the Strong Hearts Café customer base is vegan. The duo takes pride in serving the dishes their customers like best, offering monthly specials, pizza Fridays and even vegan cupcakes. Some of their famous dishes are the Reuben sandwich and the chicken salad sandwich — all vegan, of course.
As their success continued, the strong foundation and booming customer base led to the opening of a second location in December 2013 at 720 University Ave., in the former Syra-Juice Juice Bar & Eatery space. When they learned the owner was selling the business, Nick and Joel jumped to make an offer.
The new eatery had some built-in perks, coming with its own frequent customer base. The duo preserved some of its value by keeping a few of the items on the menu.
As one can imagine, running two locations can present challenges. However, Nick and Joel have a system that makes it work. Nick oversees one location, while Joel oversees the other, which makes it all come together.
“We are fortunate to be two owners with two locations,” Joel said.
Strong Hearts Café was founded with vegan beliefs, but that’s not the only passion Nick and Joel share. They also fight for social justice, aiming to raise awareness and make a difference. They wanted to do something positive with their business by giving back to the community.
“Our vision and mission include everyone,” Joel said.
Last year, the duo ran a monthly Social Justice Charity campaign day. One day each month, they donated half of all proceeds from the day’s sales to a local charity, totaling more than $6,000 given to local nonprofits organizations in 2017. The charities included Vera House, InterFaith Works and Cuse Pit Crew.
The theme of social justice extends to the Strong Hearts Café menu, too. Some of the most popular sellers are the milkshakes, which the duo named after some of their favorite heroes, including Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Caesar Chavez.
Naming the milkshakes after their heroes was “pushing the vegan agenda, but also a look at these great people who took a stand,” Nick said. And that’s what Strong Hearts Café is all about. SWM
Visit Strong Hearts Café at 719 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, and Strong Hearts on the Hill at 720 University Ave., Syracuse. For menus, specials, hours, merchandise and more, visit strongheartscafe.com, strongheartsoth.com, facebook.com/StrongHeartsCafe or facebook.com/strongheartsonthehill.