Growing up as a young boy in Portugal, Pedro Manuel probably never envisioned himself as the owner of a vegan cafe in Buffalo, NY. Even just a few short years ago, living in Buffalo, Manuel was mostly focused on furniture design in his Delaware Avenue studio.
But now, Manuel has a hospitality hit on his hands in the VilaVerde Cafe.
“I’ve never seen myself in the food industry,” he told me on a recent visit. “But since I decided to do this, the feedback has been amazing!”
Located on Porter Avenue near the Peace Bridge, VilaVerde Cafe is essentially the union of Manuel’s three passions: design, cooking and entrepreneurship.
Immaculate interior design is the first thing you notice upon pulling open the cafe’s front door. Manuel said decor was inspired by Japanese simplicity, minimalism and warmth. Unvarnished wood features prominently and it gives the space a clean, yet handmade feel.
A vegan menu may be the second part of VilaVerde’s simplistic trinity, but Manuel said he’s not trying to hit people over the head with it. He wants guests to come in to eat, not get a lecture on why they should be vegan.
“Vegan food is growing everywhere, and Buffalo is no exception,” Manuel said. “I have all kinds of people here. Some come in and they order the burger — they don’t know it’s vegan, they don’t know the menu is vegan – and they say, ‘This is one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten!’
“Sometimes, people pick up the menu, look at it and disappointingly say, ‘Oh, it’s vegan?’
It’s like, listen, just relax. What I do many times is, I give them a potato salad sample, or we have a meatball with homemade tomato sauce and have them try it. I say if you don’t try it, then you don’t know. Then, they like it and say, gimme a sandwich with this. Then they eat it and they’re like, ‘Oh shit!’
“The labeling of things sometimes prevents you from having a great experience,” he added.
The food we tried was just like any non-vegan food you might find in similar cafe. The cheeseburger ($12) was as hearty and full-flavored as any burger in town. The chorizo sandwich ($12) had earthy, creamy and cheesy flavors that were cut by the sourness of pickle and bright tomatoes. It might have been winter outside, but the marguerita salad ($6.50) tasted like spring on a plate; sweet, salty, fruity, cheesy and herbaceous. Munching on VilaVerde’s chickpea salad ($4.50), you could almost feel the sea breeze on your face to match the Mediterranean flavors.
The current soft opening menu features an assortment of toasts, sandwiches, paninis, sides, salads and sweets. Beverage options included espresso drinks, teas and juices.
“Where I come from, if you go to a café, you have a similar menu,” Manuel told me. “You know, it’s comfortable, there’s good food for a good price that you can relate to.”
The entrepreneurial vision of the Portuguese was also on display when I stopped in. With minimal staff, Manuel is hands-on in almost every aspect of service. The result is an intimate connection with his guests, who often made it a point to thank and compliment him on the food before leaving.
Manuel said he still works on furniture design as a side hustle and admitted to me that he often sits down in his cafe to work on projects. He noted this multi-purpose aspect to VilaVerde also fed into his overall business concept.
“When it’s slow, I’m here working on my design projects, so it’s like a cool office,” he said. “I’ve been working here every day, so I’ve decided (for the cafe) to be open every day. If Spot Coffee or Starbucks or any other one are open every day, so should we.”
Still in soft opening mode, Manuel said he has plans to add outdoor seating that is aligned with the building and another door to make for good flow between indoor and outdoor spaces. There are also plans for a bigger menu, yoga classes, events, Skip the Dishes, and possibly offering wine, if there is enough demand.
“The full menu will have more salad and a burger section,” Manuel said. “So, whether you want raw veggies, a cheeseburger or a double cheeseburger – it’s all about the pleasure of eating.
“For the month that I’ve been here, it’s been beyond my wildest expectations,” he added. “The food is simple. It’s also fast to make so people don’t wait too much. Plates are coming back completely empty all the time, and that’s a great sign. So we’re just going to keep going.”
388 Porter Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14201
Hours: Monday to Thursday 8 a.m. – 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. – 5 pm.