A vegan pop-up that’s been appearing at Boston-area breweries and cafes (think Lamplighter in Cambridge and 3 Little Figs in Somerville) since 2017 has found a permanent home in Somerville’s Union Square. Littleburg plans to operate a takeout and prepared meal delivery restaurant at 5 Sanborn Ct., tucked neatly between Somerville favorites Bronwyn and Field & Vine. Littleburg is using the crowdfunding platform NuMarket to help reach its fundraising goal.
“It feels surreal to be in such good company,” says Littleburg founder Graham Boswell. “The location couldn’t be more ideal. We’re right in the middle of our highest customer density — I know because we deliver to their homes each week. And we’ll be part of an ecosystem of vibrant restaurants. The kindness and support from the other operators in Union Square has meant a lot to me. The square is this undeniable destination for amazing food; we’re lucky to be a part of it.”
Littleburg’s food is inspired by various Mediterranean cuisines (Greek, Turkish, Moroccan, Israeli), and its menu will feature a number of sandwiches — including its take on a gyro, which Boswell calls the “star of the show” — as well as pide (stuffed Turkish flatbread), various mezze, and more. More than anything, Littleburg isn’t in the business of making vegan versions of non-vegan food, but rather vegan food that stands on its own merits, a practice for which there is a long tradition.
“My mission to cook vegan food that highlights vegetables isn’t a new one,” says Boswell. “It goes back to Deborah Madison opening Greens Restaurant in San Francisco with the stated goal of serving vegetarian food that avoids the cliches of vegetarian cooking. Dirt Candy in NYC follows in this tradition. I was a cook at Oleana in Cambridge, where vegetables are the star of the show more often than not, even though it’s not a vegetarian restaurant. So I’m always trying to find different ways to use vegetables to create extraordinarily flavorful and satiating meals. That’s the way I want to bring vegan cooking into the mainstream — by showing non-vegans the novel and surprising ways you can work with simple ingredients.”
While Boswell admits that it’s impossible to ignore commercial products such as Impossible meat, he doesn’t find working with the stuff rewarding from a creative standpoint. He’s happy to see that such products are helping vegan cooking gain some mainstream traction, but he says he’d never feature them on one of his menus.
“We make everything from scratch; all of our bread is made by hand,” says Boswell. “So why would we outsource a commercial product to put inside that amazing bread? It’s much more fulfilling for us to create our own deliciousness from raw ingredients.”
When the pandemic struck and interrupted Littleburg’s model as a pop-up, the business began offering prepared meals, available for takeout and delivery. Boswell says he was lucky to be able to make the pivot so easily, and that it actually allowed him to cook more food, more frequently, circumstances that helped Littleburg expand its reach and helped Boswell grow in confidence as a cook. Still, he says that making prepared meals that required some at-home work made Littleburg scale back some of its ambition in terms of ingredients, something Boswell is eager to change once he opens the new shop in Union Square.
“I’m really looking forward to returning to the level of complexity possible when cooking food live rather than with assembly required at home,” says Boswell. “We’ve scaled back on the complexity a bit because we can’t include a million components with our delivery items. We’re going to get wild with layers of color and texture on our mezzes. Loads of herbs, all the crunchy things we can throw at you. It will still be takeout, but unlike takeout you’ve seen before.”
Takeout will be the main focus of the restaurant, but Littleburg will continue offering prepared meals because doing so gives Boswell “a built-in opportunity to road-test new recipes.” Littleburg’s new space functioned as a catering kitchen since the 1980s, so it’s already equipped with much of the equipment the restaurant needs to get up and running quickly. And if all goes to plan in the next year or so, Boswell says a small dining room could be in the works sometime in the future.
“There is an opportunity to build out an intimate dining room in the unfinished garage portion of our new home,” he says. “I can picture an amazing restaurant there: high ceilings, character, a super open facade. It’s small but that’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s going to be a big project to transform it, but it’ll be really, really special once we do.”
For now, Boswell is focusing on how to sell vegan food.
“I won’t lie, it can be tough serving vegan food in Boston,” says Boswell. “Sadly, many vegan spots have come and gone. I haven’t cracked the code on exactly what resonates with Bostonians. I’d like to see more innovative, risk-taking concepts here, but it’s tough to justify taking risks when basic operating costs are so high.”
“[But] vegan food has absolutely become more mainstream,” he continues. “It used to be weird to eat vegan, but more and more people understand the benefits and seek vegan items out. I definitely think that gets more folks open to trying what we offer. But we need to consistently cook delicious food. That’s all that matters, vegan or not.”