Strong Hearts Cafe

The only all-vegan cafe in upstate New York offers an eclectic menu and a home for revolutionary spirits and activists.

At first glance, Strong Hearts Cafe looks like any other eatery, from the tables and chairs to the colorful chalkboard menu to the free wireless Internet. But Strong Hearts is the only 100 percent vegan restaurant in upstate New York, meaning the food has absolutely no animal products such as meat, eggs or dairy.

Photo: Mitchell Franz
The Tofu Lettuce Tomato (T.L.T.) sandwich, a play on the popular B.L.T., and a cup of the broccoli cheddar soup from Strong Hearts Cafe.

“People will order items off the menu and then once they sit down and actually read the menu they realize they're eating soy and not real chicken,”  co-owner Joel Capolongo said. “It happens all the time, with our milkshakes especially. It's all soy milk, soy ice cream. People can't believe that the milkshake they're drinking has no dairy products in it.”

Strong Hearts is located between downtown and Syracuse University at 719 E. Genesee St. Capolongo and co-owner Nicholas Ryan had been kicking around the idea of opening an all-vegan cafe for about a month when they saw the open space under the Onondaga School of Therapeutic Massage in December 2007.

It was a whirlwind six months from there. Their dream became reality when the cafe opened in May 2008. Capolongo described opening day as “insane.”

“Frankly, we were overwhelmed,” he said. There was a line all day long, and neither of them had experience working in a restaurant or owning a business.

Capolongo had been doing photography part-time and playing poker for money. Ryan, who graduated from Syracuse University with a psychology degree, had been working at a home for troubled children.

Within a few short months, the Syracuse New Times named Strong Hearts the Best Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant in Syracuse for 2008.

“We were just two punk rock kids,” Capolongo said. “Thankfully, it worked out.”

While the cafe does get constant business from vegetarians and vegans, most of the clientele is omnivorous, Capolongo said.

“Most people who come here aren't even vegetarian,” he said. “They just happen to work in the area or are staying in one of the hotels and they want a cheap, fast lunch.”

Strong Hearts' variety of customers shows that misconceptions about veganism are no longer true, Capolongo said.

“People think that it's boring, bland food where you're just going to eat salad all day,” he said. “But people have come back and said they've gone vegetarian after eating here because they realized how easy it is and how good it is and how cheap it is. The most expensive thing on the menu is six bucks.”

Strong Hearts also appeals to a niche group. Karen Hall, a humanities post-doc at Syracuse University, comes to the cafe four or five times a week to eat and grade student work. She's been a vegetarian since 1992 and a vegan for five years.

Her favorite thing about the cafe? “I can eat everything on the menu," Hall said. "That's really rare.”

The menu includes breakfast items like the spicy tofu scramble, pancakes and waffles. For lunch, there are a variety of grilled sandwiches with ingredients like seitan, tofurkey, soy bacon, vegan cheese and the “chicken” salad that fools so many. Fridays are pizza nights from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

And the cafe's famous milkshakes include 34 flavors such as Harriet Tubman (maple/vanilla/oreo), The Haudenosaunee (pumpkin), Rosa Parks (peach cobbler), and Martin Luther King Jr. (mocha). The flavors are named after people who inspired Capolongo and Ryan. The menu reads, “We chose these heroes to honor their revolutionary spirit and strong hearts.”

“Strong Hearts” comes from a quote attributed to Crazy Horse during the last battle of Little Big Horn: “It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die! Strong hearts, brave hearts to the front! Weak hearts and cowards to the rear.”

“To us that kind of embodied the warrior spirit and standing up for what you believe in, following your visions and your dreams to the end,” Capolongo said.
Strong Hearts aims for the same revolutionary spirit. The two owners, both central New York natives, met in 2002 or 2003 at animal rights meetings. Capolongo has spent time in jail and traveled as far as Antarctica for his animal rights activism. The cafe has become a new outlet for that, he said.

“Animal rights and earth liberation and human rights are still very important to me," he said. "We try to do things as environmentally friendly as possible. All of our takeout supplies are compostable and biodegradable. Nothing that leaves here is plastic, so that's really important to us. That's how Nick and I live our personal lives, so it only made sense that's how we ran our business.”

They also buy local and organic ingredients from farmers markets as often as possible. They don't use high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. There is literature about veganism at the counter and a bulletin board for other local activist groups, such as the Syracuse Peace Council, to post fliers.
Capolongo said the cafe has become a sort of hub for local progressives. Groups even hold meetings in the cafe.

“It's really cool to see a lot of activism happening,” he said.

Capolongo said the cafe benefits the city in ways beside providing healthy food and promoting activism. If he were to leave Syracuse, he would look for cities that provide vegan options, he said. People have been attracted to Syracuse specifically because of their business, he said.

As for the future, people have been encouraging Capolongo and Ryan to open a second location. But Capolongo said they have a lot to learn since they've only been open a year and a half.

“That isn't totally out of the question, but first we want to make sure we have everything down pat here,” he said.

I am normally a devout

I am normally a devout carnivore, but a recent visit to your restaurant convinced me that the vegan lifestyle is quite tasty and satisfying. Food was great. Can't wait to go back!

I went to Strong Hearts about

I went to Strong Hearts about a month ago and I can't wait to go back. I'm a vegetarian and was excited to have so many options to choose from. My mother and sister, who reguarly eat meat, enjoyed their meals as well. They have choices for everyone. I'm happy that we have such a great cafe in Syracuse.


This place sounds great! I am thinking about becoming a vegetarian in the near future, so I will def have to check this place out!

Thank you Strong Hearts!

You guys are great!!

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