Alfoncie B. Austin has marked 31 years of serving up her signature style of vegetarian fare in the Reading Terminal Market.
When Austin launched the Basic 4 Vegetarian Café, she had a vision of creating a mecca where vegetarians could find nutritious, yet tasty, fare. At the time, some neighboring vendors didn’t think she would be successful because vegetarian cuisine wasn’t very popular at the time.
“Here we are 31 years later and healthy eating is all the rage,” says Austin’s daughter, Lisa Tynes, who serves as Basic 4’s general manager.
“I just think that she’s remarkable to have been a pioneer in this area. My mom is an excellent cook, so she could have done soul food. She could have gone in any direction, but she chose this and it’s just amazing.”
When Austin set up shop in June 1981 she became the market’s first African-American food merchant.
“I never thought about being the first,” says Austin.
Tynes says her mother has never received a business loan throughout her years in business.
“It’s definitely a labor of love for her. She’s very passionate about it. I just feel blessed to have her as a mentor in business and life,” says Tynes.
Austin utilized her skills as the former dietician of Hahnemann Hospital to create a signature menu. She creates balanced entrees that feature the components of the four basic food groups and the most recent vegetarian pyramid food preparation.
Throughout the years, Basic 4 has been known for churning out classics such as carrot tuna, veggie burgers, Philly steak, soy chicken and sweet potato pies. The Philly steak — grilled seitan served on a wholegrain roll, is one of the café’s staples. The menu features an array of offerings ranging from sandwiches, soups, salads, to fresh juices and smoothies and baked goods.
“It’s been a good product all the way through,” Austin said as she reflected on her business milestone.
Tynes says there is something on the menu to cater to everyone — whether they are a hardcore vegan or vegetarian.
“My mom’s philosophy is to capture the flavors and the texture of what people are used to eating,” says Tynes.
This year marks a period of transition for the business. Austin will remain as the café’s owner, but she has transferred more responsibility for the business to her daughter. While she no longer works the counter, Austin is often on site mixing up various food items from scratch.
The mother and daughter duo are working on some major plans. Austin is writing a cookbook, slated to be published in 2013. Plans are also in the works to take some of Basic 4’s signature offerings beyond the café and onto the shelves of small co-ops throughout the city.
Paul Steinke, general manager of the Reading Terminal Market says that the largest proportion of the market’s merchants actually date from the 1980s.
“The market was pretty much empty by the 1970s and it was in the 1980s that it became repopulated with a bunch of new merchants — of which Basic 4 was one,” says Steinke.
“It’s wonderful for the market that we have such longevity among our merchants,” says Steinke.
With the closure of Delilah’s Southern Cuisine, Basic 4 is currently the market’s only African American-owned food retailer.
Steinke says the market wants the former site of Delilah’s to remain as a southern-style restaurant. Management is in the process of reviewing applications for a new tenant.
Basic 4’s lease at the market is set to expire in September; however Tynes says they are determined to stay.
“We’ve got to make upgrades. We’ve got to flow with the new energy that the market has and its overall renovations. It’s our desire to remain, and we’re willing to work with the market to do whatever we can do to continue to be here,” Tynes added.
To that end, they have brought in Blane Stoddart, president and CEO of BFW Group, LLC to help upgrade the café and increase its exposure.
“The challenge for Basic 4 is that the Reading Terminal Market is radically changing,” said Stoddart.
“The challenge for us is ‘how do we fit in with those changes?’”
Basic 4 is open Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The café is closed on Saturdays.