It’s a big yellow rectangle from the outside. It’s an antique collection in disarray on the inside. It’s a massive helping of vegan food in your stomach.
This family-run business is called the Aardvark Kafé and it is starting to change the game when it comes to providing vegan options in State College.
Owner Karen Bunting Urbanski, who opened the Aardvark Kafé with her husband, Les, three years ago, said people on vegan diets — those who avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy and sometimes even honey — are often surprised and delighted when they open the Aardvark’s menu.
Bunting Urbanski, who’s been a vegan for about four years, knows how difficult it can be for people on that diet to dine out.
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“When you go out to eat, you can’t eat anything,” she said. “It’s like, OK I’ll have salad ... don’t put any dressing on it please, just give me a lemon.”
That’s not a problem at her restaurant.
One of the most popular menu items is the Merrick, a plate of barbecued tofu bites, hummus, romaine and tomatoes topped with onion straws. It was named after a 5-year-old boy whose family regularly ate there.
“My son says, ‘Merrick what do you like on a sandwich?’ ” Bunting Urbanski said. “He made it for him and he said, ‘darn that looks good!’ And it became the Merrick.”
Other popular items are the Mick Mick Mick, the Vegan Dee’a (both named after regular customers) and vegan milkshakes, which taste just like milkshakes even though they contain no milk.
Les Urbanski grew up in Manchester, England, where he helped his father run a restaurant. In moving to the U.S., Les hoped to have a restaurant of his own. One day, flipping through Craigslist, he saw a building for sale, occupied by the Original Italian Pizza restaurant at 906 W. College in State College. After some negotiating, the Urbanskis bought it and later renamed it the Aardvark Kafé. Eventually the vegan menu was added.
They knew they were taking a risk and that there would be tough patches along the way.
“Starting a business is not easy,” Bunting Urbanski said, “but it’s way easier doing it with someone that you actually care about and love.”
There are nonvegan food options on the menu, but Bunting Urbanski estimates that vegan food makes up roughly 60 percent of sales.
The Aardvark’s interior looks more like an antique store. Nothing matches, there are collectables everywhere, and a lot of the stuff is older than the average college student. All of it is available for purchase.
It all started when Les suggested redecorating the old Italian restaurant interior.
“It was like a pizzeria USA,” Bunting Urbanski said, “ply booths, no personality. You could go to the beach or anywhere and it would look like that.”
No more. She often takes menus to antique shows and picks up additional restaurant business that way as well. One hand feeds the other, as she likes to say.
Although she enjoys the antiques aspect of the restaurant, she acknowledges that food is her main passion and it’s how the family stays afloat financially.