Specializing IN plant-based foods, the Wilmington-born business now has a Philly site…
Despite the nation’s uncertain economic climate, Jason Avila and his partners have been busy expanding their business, their charity and the ranks of healthy eaters.
Avila, John Naughton and Angela Wagner own Green Box Kitchen, a plant-based cafe in Wilmington’s business district. They opened a Philadelphia location in November.
It’s not an easy time for anyone to be in the hospitality business. Avila, for one, is motivated by a mission. He is also a founder of Wilmington Green Box, a nonprofit that supplies jobs for at-risk teens while providing healthy options in urban food deserts.
Providing produce and cold-pressed juices is one thing. Getting people to embrace them is another.
“When we came into the [Wilmington] market, the vegan culture wasn’t here — it was a foreign concept,” Avila recalls.
That didn’t stop Avila, who is seemingly comfortable on the cutting edge.
From Pushcart to Cafe
Wilmington Green Box began in 2016 with a pushcart — and not just any cart.
“It was built from an old freezer box we found in a Victorian home in the west side of Wilmington,” Avila says. “We revamped it, put wheels on it and brought healthy goods into neighborhoods.” (Tricycles with attached coolers have since replaced the pushcart.)
Green Box rolled fresh produce and juices into communities such as Eastside and Southbridge — sections known as food deserts because they are without full-service grocery stores.
Of the 215 census tracts in Delaware, 142 census tracts — which have 61% percent of the population — lack a grocery store, according to a 2015 report by the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration. An additional 56 census tracts with about 27% percent of the population only have one.
From the start, the concept was also about helping at-risk teens. “It’s been a two-prong approach,” agrees the Bronx native, who is also the owner of Flyogi. The mobile yoga company offers stress-management programs and holistic youth yoga programs.
Wilmington Green Box started with a 14-year-old employee, who continued to work for the group until COVID-19 hit the state.
Gradually, Green Box went from showing skeptics that you can get juice from a carrot to keeping up with the demand for the juice.
With seed money from The Buccini/Pollin Group, a Wilmington developer, and Downtown Visions, which manages the Business Improvement District, Green Box added a seasonal kiosk on Market Street. It became so popular that customers pined for the cold-pressed juices when it closed for winter.
The charity’s education efforts were paying off. “The people we were working with on the ground were saying: ‘We love the juices, we love the fruit salad, but we want food,’” Avila says. “We are ready for the next step.”
Enter Green Box Kitchen at Fourth and Market streets, which opened in November 2019. The café serves juices, salads, smoothies, acai and grain bowls, sandwiches and falafel waffles topped with hummus. It also is a commissary for the mobile carts and kiosk.
A year after opening, Delaware Today magazine named Green Box Kitchen the Best Vegan/Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurant.
From One to Two
Currently, four teams work two days a week, making and bottling cold-pressed juices. (The bikes and kiosk are on hold due to the pandemic.)
While Green Box Kitchen on Market Street is a fast-casual restaurant with seating, the new Philadelphia site on Fairmount Avenue only offers takeout and delivery. On the website, there are links to Grubhub, Doordash, Uber Eats and Postmates.
Navigating the Philly scene has been a learning experience, Avila acknowledges. “We’re just popping up on people’s radars.”
That’s not the case in Wilmington. “This is our hometown,” he says. “This is where we’re known, respected, acknowledged and supported. We get positivity from the people we serve and the community at large.
While COVID-19 has impacted the hospitality industry, more people realize the importance of healthy eating, Avila says.
“The stronger your immune system and the stronger your body, the better chance you have of fighting the virus,” he notes.
Speaking of the pandemic, Avila and his partners are grappling with the future. “We want to continue to grow and expand, but what that looks like is determined by this global pandemic. There is a lot of unpredictability.”
However, he is sure of one thing.
“We are doing our best to stay present and be ahead of the curve — to anticipate change — and survive,” he says. “We are as practical, functional and viable as possible to get through this.”
For more information, visit greenboxkitchen.com.