Coastal North County resident Heather Bradshaw has found a taste of home, right in her own backyard.
The 23-year-old Midwestern transplant and vegetarian with love for Jewish-style delicatessen food has been anticipating the opening of a specialty dining establishment that she hoped would feed her soul, spirit and stomach.
Her wait ended last week (Aug. 6) when Ben & Esther’s Vegan Jewish Deli began doing business in a strip mall in Oceanside.
There along South Coast Highway, Bradshaw and a nonstop line of customers queued up well into the afternoon, ordering from a big sign behind the front register cruelty-free Reuben sandwiches and Philly cheesesteaks, plant-based “lox” made from carrots, “whitefish” created from hearts of palm and matzo ball soup free of chicken.
Near a neon sign with the phrase “For The Animals” lit up with a peach glow, the Ben & Esther’s menu also offered other traditional deli fare like (meatless) brisket, egg salad (made with tofu), beet Borscht, noodle kugel and potato latkes as well as bagels, loaves of babka and kosher dill pickles.
“I’m from a very Jewish area in Chicago, and this place definitely gives me some of what I remember,” Bradshaw said, holding a large container of the soup, some Black-&-White cookies, and both a zaatar bagel and rosemary bagel, both ready to be shmeared with her container of dairy-free cream cheese infused with faux bacon.
“It’s so nice to have so many options here. I’m so excited to have this in Oceanside. We’ve been following them on Instagram forever, waiting for this day.”
Ben & Esther’s founder and CEO Justin King, a seasoned restaurateur who owns other vegan dining establishments and also used to own a half dozen barber shops, opened the first Ben & Esther’s in 2020 in Portland, Oregon, the unofficial vegan capital of the United States.
King, 48, a vegetarian/vegan for about 35 years, named the business after his Jewish grandparents of Ukrainian descent. Both were devoted fans of delicatessen food and bagel aficionados. He said he was close to his grandparents, second-generation Americans who first lived in Queens, N.Y., then moved to Miami.
The early version of Ben & Esther’s served bagels and some traditional deli food, then moved to vegetarian vittles for a time – including dairy cheese, milk-based butter and chicken eggs – but Ben & Esther’s went full vegan within a year, eschewing all animal products.
Principles Over Profit
“I struggled since day one, reconciling with my own principles,” King said. “We decided it wasn’t enough to be vegetarian. To really make a difference, you know that it takes some sacrifice. So we figured we were going to do it all the way or nothing.”
Sticklers for quality since the start, King said for him “it was about profit” in the early going, but then “it became about principles, and with that, people.” He started a still ongoing “monthly mitzvah” campaign that gives different advocacy groups a percentage of sales.
Within months, Portland’s first Ben & Esther’s became so popular that King opened a second site in that city in 2021.
The Oceanside digs are also site No. 2 Ben & Esther’s in San Diego County – the first spot is in the Aztec Village Shopping Center on El Cajon Boulevard near San Diego State University. The SDSU location, which has been overseen by Ben & Esther’s COO Marc Bennett, also owner of Pappy’s Barber Shop in Aztec Village, opened in January, and has been so busy that King said that he and Bennett knew San Diego was ready for another.
“We originally chose San Diego because San Diego has a decent vegan scene,” King said. “The reason we went with a second shop is because of the response we’ve gotten.
People like it and they’re supportive of it and we figure we want to spread it out.”
Bennett, also 48 and a vegetarian/vegan for more than 30 years, said the two want to make plant-based comfort food more accessible to everyone, sooner versus later.
Bennett said that even media outlets like Forbes have taken note, and said that King was recently the subject of a documentary that is set to be shown on either Netflix or Hulu in the coming months. The two are in talks with vegan company GoodPlanet to produce a line of their own schmears that will be available in retail outlets like Whole Foods, Publix and Kroger.
King and Bennett are also going to be judges in a “Shark Tank” kind of competition that an entrepreneurship program at SDSU will be having this year.
King said he started the deli sort of on a whim and didn’t have plans to expand, but that has changed.
“Without divulging too much, we’re about to close a funding raise that will allow for a national expansion,” King said. “We’re looking at another 15 or 20 shops in the next three or four years. We have private investors who are very experienced at scaling, some very well-known businesses that you’re more than familiar with, but they haven’t gotten into the food space and they want to. They specifically want to get into the plant-based food space as investors. They understand that’s a smart move. It’s what’s hot.”
King and Bennett, who are 50/50 owners, say they are looking to open Ben & Esther’s in spots where there are already thriving vegan-focused businesses.
“We’re all supportive of each other,” Bennett said.
Ben & Esther’s Vegan Jewish Deli
CEO: Justin King
HEADQUARTERS: Portland, Oregon
BUSINESS: Vegan restaurant
NOTABLE: The restaurant’s menu is 100% vegan.