UPPER EAST SIDE — When Fernanda Capobianco launched her upscale vegan dessert company two years ago she couldn’t even give her free samples away.
Back then fancy treats baked with organic spelt flour, maple syrup, canola and cold pressed coconut oil did not appeal to dessert lovers steeped in the ways of butter, cream and eggs, she recaled.
But a lot has changed since then as vegan’s whiff of hippie has been replaced by its star-studded status with celebrity followers like Jessica Chastain, Olivia Wilde and Alicia Silverstone.
And on Thursday, Capobianco's company, Vegan Divas, catapulted from its spot on the shelves at city gourmet shops including Butterfield Market, Citarella, FC Chocolate Bar at the Plaza Hotel and Whole Foods Market, to her first-ever brick and mortar storefront at 1437 First Ave. near East 75th Street.
“When I would give samples, people wouldn’t even try them. The word ‘vegan’ turned them off,” said Capobianco, who has been vegan for the past decade and a half. “So I stopped telling people it was vegan. I don’t know if it’s the celebrity thing or what, but now vegan has become fashionable.”
Capobianco received some business direction from her world-renowned pastry chef husband, Francois Payard, and launched her tiny, 450-square foot storefront — with a 1,000 square foot kitchen to promote vegan treats as a healthier option for those with a sweet tooth like herself.
The all-vegan offerings at the new shop — cholesterol-free, low-calorie, kosher and made from organic ingredients — proudly display their calorie counts and will include spelt chocolate brownies ($3.50, 120 calories), gluten-free coconut macaroons ($2.25, 203 calories) and passion fruit white chocolate mousse ($3.50, 120 calories).
Capobianco will also serve her signature doughnuts, with chocolate icing, cinnamon sugar or toasted coconut in the mini size ($1.50, 15 – 20 calories) or large ($3, 150 – 195 calories).
The renowned La Colombe coffee will be available as will fresh pressed juices, quiches and sandwiches.
“When I was 12, I stopped eating meat. I was born like that,” said Capobianco, who grew up in the meat-loving country of Brazil, “I used to go to a nutritionist [in Brazil] and she said, ‘You need to have animal protein.’ But then I started studying and researching on my own.”
She opened her flagship store on the Upper East Side for a very simple reason: “Our clientele is here.”
Before moving to New York three years ago, Capobianco was a journalist and a manager and owner of the Payard Restaurant and Pastry shops in Rio de Janeiro. For Vegan Divas, she enlisted the help of her cousin Felipe Saint Martin, who was a lead line cook at Gramercy Tavern and the head chef of the pasta department when Eataly opened.
Saint Martin, who is also from Brazil and stopped eating red meat, said he likes the “sustainability” aspect of the company. “It’s not just because of the animals, but also about the sustainability of the planet,” he said, adding that more land is required to raise animals than to produce vegetables.
Saint Martin, who will be managing the shop, has been experimenting in the kitchen with ginger “ice cream” made with soy milk, squeezed ginger, sugar and canola oil and various juices. Carrot/orange/ginger and apple/celery/parsley/lemon made the cut. He’s still toying with the recipe for one with lemon, chili powder and maple syrup.
But the macaroons, made with almonds and coconut, remain his favorite.
“It’s better than the real deal,” he said.