Toriano Gordon, the chef and founder of Vegan Mob — the eight-month-old barbecue walkup spot that’s garnered massive lines, press coverage including a recent feature in Food & Wine, and rave reviews from omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans — says that he’s already outgrown his current Oakland location. He’s looking for a new location in the city and is also planning to expand his empire to San Francisco.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Gordon, a San Francisco native who grew up near the famed intersection of Fillmore and Haight Streets. A graduate of San Francisco’s late, great McAteer High School, Gordon toyed with a career in rap before going vegan a few years ago out of concern for his health. After pulling animal products from his diet, he became an evangelist for the plant-based lifestyle and launched Vegan Mob as a pop-up in the spring of 2019.
Gordon grew up around the restaurant industry, as his grandfather (technically, his stepfather’s dad) owned Nob Hill’s fine dining French destination Rue Lepic and neighborhood Italian spot Nob Hill Cafe. His initial plan was to evolve his pop-up into a food truck, but instead, he made the leap to brick-and-mortar with the help of Señor Sisig’s Evan Kidera, another SF native who’s been friends with Gordon since long before their ascendancy in the Bay Area restaurant scene.
“I wanted to buy Evan’s food truck, but he couldn’t sell it to me. So he helped me get this place instead,” Gordon says, referring to his restaurant inside the former Kwik Way Drive-In, a Grand Lake landmark.
It’s unclear how much longer Gordon will be able to remain in his present digs, as since 2016, there’s been a plan to redevelop that site into a large mixed-use development. As of last month, that plan was still in play, Oakland officials confirm. But Gordon’s not waiting for the boom to drop, saying that even as-is, Vegan Mob is too popular to be restricted to just one location — and the time is right to make a move into SF.
“We’ve been crazy busy,” Gordon says, and things got even busier after the Food & Wine item last month, which glowingly described his fake-bacon collard greens and Texas-style faux brisket and ribs to a national audience. It brought people who might not have visited Vegan Mob out in droves even during the pandemic, Gordon says, and “with all the people and celebrities,” customers during busy times were waiting hours for their meals.
One might cock a brow at the mention of celebrities, given the relative newness of Gordon’s spot. Indeed, talking to Gordon is like being smacked with a charisma-stuffed pillow, he’s such a naturally persuasive speaker. (It might be noted that Gordon’s high school was also home to San Francisco’s School of the Arts, which produced folks like Aisha Tyler, Margaret Cho, and Sam Rockwell — he shares those SF natives’ ability to charm and dazzle). But a look through Vegan Mob’s prolific Instagram account is proof positive: here’s chart-topping Oakland musician Kehlani, there’s Tony! Toni! Toné! founder D’wayne Wiggins. Vegan Mob might be one of Oakland’s hottest spots to see and be seen.
Gordon isn’t sure when crews will come to knock the old Kwik Way down, but says that his lease is up in April of 2021. That means he’s actively looking for a new venue in Oakland, but San Francisco is also on his mind. “I had a thought like damn, I would love to have a restaurant in the city, and I would love to have it on Haight Street,” Gordon said. The next day, he says, he got a DM about one location at Haight and Masonic that was available. This week, he went to check it out.
Gordon says that navigating San Francisco’s pricey commercial real estate scene feels different now than it did a year ago, and not just because of a city-emptying pandemic. In securing his first location, as an inexperienced black chef, Gordon says, “I had to work really hard to get this spot.... I had to prove that it would work out, show them my business plan.” Now, he notes wryly, “I was shocked at how nice and how accommodating landlords are now... It was like a piece of cake. I was in shock at how inviting they were, how welcoming they were, how excited they were to see me.”
Gordon — who says that he “always moves fast... I got the keys to this building in August, we were open by October” — is looking at additional properties this week, and says he hopes to sign a lease and get going on an SF space as soon as possible.
Given his position, this doesn’t seem like hubris. Since Vegan Mob was always a takeout-model walk-up, it didn’t suffer the way restaurants reliant on sit-down dining did when the pandemic hit in March. “In fact, we got even busier,” Gordon says. That means that, for him, it’s a great time to return to San Francisco in search of a new location, a city that just months ago might not have been within reach for a business as new as Vegan Mob.
But now, Gordon says, “I’m here to play” and to take advantage of the San Francisco’s suddenly cooling real estate market. “But I don’t feel guilty” about striking while landlords are scrambling, Gordon says. “This is San Francisco. My people have been moved out, and we’ve been gentrified.” Finally, he says, “This is my time — this is our time — to say, ‘Hey, you need me — now let me in.’”