A BEC from Plantega. Photo: Hugo Yu

Here is a news flash: High-tech veggie burgers, celebrity-authored plant-based cookbooks, and meat-free tasting menus are not going to save the planet, despite what the marketing copy might claim. Too often — almost always, in fact — the act of eating fruits, vegetables, and grains is aspirational, whitewashed, Goop-ready, and not really connected to the way real people eat each day. “If any company in the food space, especially food manufacturers, tells you that they’re going to change or disrupt the food system,” says Nil Zacharias, “that’s an immediate red flag that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

Zacharias is also the founder and CEO of a plant-based food company, but, during the earliest days of the pandemic, as he read about restaurants closing while the city’s corner shops and bodegas remained open after being deemed “essential businesses,” something clicked: These are the stores that New Yorkers depend on and these are the places where most of us buy at least some of our food each week. These are also, Zacharias says, “the last places” people would expect to find anything described as “plant-based.” This, he realized, was an opportunity, to meet people where they already buy paper towels and to launch a company that capitalizes on the connection customers have to their bodega guys.

In the fall of 2020, Zacharias debuted Plantega as a pilot program at three bodegas in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The original idea was branded fridges stocked with plant-based products, plus a small menu of four deli sandwiches. The fridges were a bust; the real action was on the griddle. So Zacharias expanded the in-store menu: 14 sandwiches, subs, and burritos, including a BEC with Umaro bacon and Vertage American cheddar, a chopped cheese made from Karana burger patties, and quesadillas with Daring “original chicken.” (More food — such as a chicken fajita wrap and loaded nacho fries — is available via delivery only.) A fried-chicken sandwich is a convincing facsimile of the real deal: a little messy with its fake mayo and cheese, shredded lettuce almost spilling out, the chicken a thin patty that’s a little crunchy.

Here’s how it works: Plantega selects the products (and delivers them to deli cooks to test), develops the menu, trains the cooks, and supplies ingredients. It’s Plantega’s employees who organize and label products in the deli storage, and they provide physical menus and put A-frames outside for advertising. The bodega is the same — the same cans of beans, the too-narrow aisles, the usual mix of Cubanos and Boar’s Head cold cuts — with Plantega’s offerings wedged in. “It’s sort of a no-brainer for us,” says Hamza Nagi, an owner of Superior Gourmet Marketplace in Chelsea, “because they do all the work.”

But they also operate differently from the established names that typically stock bodegas. “The first year was the hardest because it was unproven,” Zacharias says, “and most people look at us quizzingly, wondering who we are and what we’re doing and why they should even trust us.” Of course it all comes down to money: Distributors pay Plantega a fee to be part of the menu. The company doesn’t take a cut from any bodegas’ in-store sales, instead charging “a nominal fee” for product orders. For online orders on platforms such as Uber Eats, where the bodegas are listed as Plantega locations, the businesses split the revenue.

One afternoon, I met Zacharias at a table in the back of Bedford Gourmet Food in Williamsburg. He was sitting with the store’s manager, Jonathan Estrada. A weight lifter and self-described carnivore, Estrada can get carried away talking about a rack of lamb, and he admits he was initially skeptical of Plantega: “They got us once they told us they’ll take all the inventory back and pay for it. I was like, ‘No risk?’” Margins are so slim in an industry where managers and owners keep a close eye on details down to their daily electricity usage, so Plantega offers what is, essentially, a trial period. “Right away, like two weeks, we started to see more customers,” Estrada says. Now, he estimates that about 20 percent of Bedford Gourmet’s sandwich orders are for Plantega, but they’ve experienced a late-night boost. “Midnight, when everything else is closed, the orders are more like 40 percent vegan,” he says. (Zacharias recalls pitching one store where an employee laughed about the cost of vegan chopped cheese. “Who is going to pay $10 for a sandwich that you can get for $6?” she’d asked. Two weeks later, they called to order more products and now the deli — Silver Moon in Washington Heights — charges $12 for the Plantega sandwich (or $17 on Grubhub).

In the early days, Zacharias says he would go for runs and jot down the names of promising bodegas he passed. Since 2021, they’ve benefitted from networks of store owners, particularly in the Yemeni community. “We’ve been working with them, I think, for eight months, and I’ve been recommending them to all of my business partners’ other partners,” says Nagi, the owner of the Chelsea bodega. Plantega is in more than 60 locations now, across all five boroughs and Yonkers. It has nine full-time employees, including an operations manager named Rosabel Sanchez who first worked in her dad’s bodega in the Bronx. Zacharias says she understands the store owners’ POV — and doesn’t hesitate to push back when they try to nickel-and-dime Plantega over prices. “She doesn’t take shit from the owners,” he says.

Zacharias understands the path to further growth means making sure his company’s products move. Bodega owners are ruthless about their inventory and if an item is taking up space, it needs to go — no need to stock some obscure cereal or vegan sausage patties if people aren’t buying them. For now, that’s not a problem: New Yorkers’ appetite for chopped cheese knows no bounds, even when the beef is really jackfruit, and the “cheese” is made with potato proteins.