Vegan Cakes Are Guilt-Free at P.S. & Co.
At 17th and Locust, Andrea Kyan is quietly staging a plant-based revolution—and, surprisingly, desserts, not salads, are at the heart of it. Take a look at the menu of Pure Sweets & Co. (a.k.a. P.S.& Co.), the bakery and restaurant she opened in May 2014, and you’ll see a strawberries-and-cream milkshake made with beet juice and coconut cream instead of dairy.
Hungry for tiramisu? Kyan (pronounced “cayenne”) uses avocado in place of mascarpone cheese and maple syrup instead of sugar. Although these substitutions might rankle purists, Kyan’s shakes, cakes, cookies and tarts have inspired legions of dessert lovers (including this one) to rethink decadence.
“I am trying to take the guilt out of desserts,” she says on a Friday afternoon, as she slides behind the counter to remove a dark chocolate layer cake from the cooler. With its slightly askew quartet of layers—cake, vanilla cream, chocolate ganache and chocolate-laced bananas—it appears both feathery and gilded, like the headdress of a Radio City Rockette. Fat-free, it is not. Low-calorie? Don’t even. But gluten-free? Organic? Vegan? Umm… kosher? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
Allow me to make a confession: I love dairy more than life itself, yet I prefer Kyan’s vegan cakes to most traditional cakes I’ve eaten. The mouthfeel of her creams and frostings made from pureed avocados and cashews are velvety and supple, never pasty or stiff from an excess of cold butter. Her cake base, which took nearly two years to perfect, is fluffy and moist thanks to finely ground blanched almonds and a stream of extra-virgin olive oil.
“Cakes were my dream project,” she says, noting that she wanted to develop her own gluten-free flour blend rather than work with one of the commercial brands on the market because “so many of them have starches and gums, which can be hard to digest.”
When people leave her restaurant, Kyan wants them to feel satisfied and energized—not overly full or heavy. “After I eat that cake,” Kyan says, pointing to the dark chocolate banana torte, “I am good for a three-hour workout. It’s packed with protein.”
A three-hour workout? Yes, in addition to running a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, Kyan trains with “an Olympic-level Judo guy” (Marius Enache of Tactics MMA) twice a week for three hours. It keeps her feeling physically fit, but she concedes that the self-defense aspect appeals to her most. Let’s just say she’s had a few tough customers
In an age when eating has become political and fad diets constantly shift how we define “healthy eating,” finding pleasure in food is not always easy. Kyan says that’s why her primary goal is simply to give her customers “the childhood happiness of eating without guilt.” Whatever you’re avoiding or limiting—sugar, dyes, hormones, gluten—and whatever political food agenda you’re pursuing, Kyan wants to create a place where you can enjoy a meal without compromise. As kids, she emphasizes, people are allowed to enjoy food with “pure” delight.
Returning to that childlike mindset is at the root of Kyan’s mission—a mission that is deeply connected to her past, growing up in New Jersey with a Burmese mother and a Chinese father who both loved to eat. Ask about her late mother and you’ll hear about sumptuous after-school snacks and dinners that were on par with “Thanksgiving every night.” Her mother cooked three meals from scratch every day, from traditional dumplings to homemade lasagna. Ask about Kyan’s father, a devout Buddhist, and you’ll learn how he valued the ethics of eating and never killed a fly. His empathy for all living things led Kyan to become a vegetarian in middle school, then later a vegan. “Even here, my staff doesn’t kill [so much as a fly],” she offers. “They know Andrea doesn’t like it.”
Kyan began baking in 2007, soon after she went vegan. She had a fierce sweet tooth, and a lot of the vegan desserts she tried fell short of what she was craving. “I was a sugar addict,” she confesses. By day, she worked for a diabetes researcher at Monell Chemical; by night, she experimented in her kitchen with sugar substitutes and vegan recipes. Honey was off limits since it’s not strictly vegan (bees!), so Kyan turned to agave at first, only to learn from her boss that agave syrup has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup. Since fructose converts to fat faster than glucose does, it’s hardly an ideal sweetener for those striving to eat a healthy diet.
Over time, Kyan settled on maple syrup and organic coconut sugar, making them staples in her pantry. She also signed up for Vegan Baking Boot Camp at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, taught by cookbook author and legendary vegan baker Fran Costigan. “She was so scary,” Kyan recalls, laughing, “but I learned so much from her.”
A side business grew as Kyan’s friends and coworkers began ordering her baked goods, and in 2008 she launched an online business, Pure Sweets LLC, selling to area businesses and clients in New York and Los Angeles. When she landed an account with Whole Foods in 2010, she rented a commercial kitchen in East Falls. Soon after, she began dreaming of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, someplace with an epic dessert case but also an underlying mission to support healthy lifestyles—like Café Gratitude in Los Angeles, an organic plant-based restaurant Kyan visited during her research phase. When she opened P.S. & Co. in 2014, she launched with an ambitious program of cooking classes, meal plans, coldpressed juices, sugar-free snacks and all-day plant-based dining.
Regulars like Robert Del Femine soon put down roots along the lunch counter, while Penn students flocked to the airy back room for smoothie-laden study sessions. Del Femine calls Kyan a bright star in the city’s dining scene. He and his wife Jennifer walk or bike to P.S. & Co. at least three times a week from their home on Washington Square; they’re brunch regulars and love Kyan’s kale-pesto pizza and blueberry-cream carrot cake. Del Femine also likes to treat himself to a fresh juice at the end of his 50-mile bike rides.
“I’m a corporate person and a nightlife person but also an active person,” says Del Femine, who started exploring a mostly raw-food diet about a decade ago. When his wife developed a gluten sensitivity recently, P.S. & Co. became their favorite spot. “My mother-in-law always said you can pay the farmer, or you can pay the doctor,” he laughs, adding that, at 57, he feels better than ever thanks to regular exercise and good nutrition.
Heather Bradbury, who moved to Philadelphia the same week P.S. & Co. opened, became an almost daily customer right away. She’s a pescatarian, but admits she’s “not a very good one,” because she’s on the road a lot for her job with GE Healthcare. At P.S. & Co., she says, “I can get all of my greens in, and it’s not painful.” She’s also experienced a dramatic change in her overall well-being since she began eating the plant-based menu at P.S. & Co.: “I have more energy, I’m never bloated and the portions are right, so that I’m full— and I’m full for the right amount of time.”
Kyan will be the first to tell you that her vision is idealistic. It’s also expensive. “You should see my nut bills,” she says, rolling her eyes. “A thousand dollars a week!” The business model hasn’t proven sustainable yet—given her uncompromising commitment to quality. But she likes the creative challenge of figuring out how to run a business that is both profitable and “pure.” That’s why she named her original business Pure Sweets & Co.—“to keep myself honest,” she says.
After two years with P.S. & Co., Kyan has learned a few things about price and perceptions. For example, people are willing to pay a premium for an organic smoothie, but not for an organic salad. Also, full-service meals—like special theme dinners and weekend brunches—attract lines out the door, whereas her initial concept—a counter-service café with loads of healthy grab-and-go foods in recyclable containers—was a tougher sell. This fall, she moved toward full-service dining at the request of her customers. She and her staff are also working to perfect more “treat” items.
“I want to nail ice cream,” she says, breaking a chocolate-chip cookie in half.
What kind of ice cream?
“Chocolate mint.” She’s emphatic. “Chocolate-mint ice cream, with spinach juice to make it green.”
P.S. & Co.
1706 Locust St.