Not just any pizza: Pizzeria challenges traditional view of pizza

Vegan Pizza Pi just began its fourth year in the University District last November. Located on the corner of North 55th Street and University Way Northeast, it's difficult to miss the large awning announcing Vegan Pizza Pi.

Plenty of pizzerias offer vegan options, but owner Russ Kemsley has yet to find another strictly vegan pizzeria anywhere else.

Many may question the idea of a vegan pizza, since we tend to picture traditional pizza with cheese, a variety of meats and more cheese. Kemsley kept all palates in mind, though, and conducted extensive research to discern the best flavors and textures to appeal to vegans and meat-eaters alike.

Setting up shop

Built in the 1920s, the building was the original call center for Pagliacci Pizza, before Vegan Pizza Pi moved in.

"I don't really consider myself a dine-in establishment," Kemsley said.

The majority of his orders are takeout, though he does have three tables where customers either can wait for their order or eat.

As owner and sole employee, Kemsley receives orders on-line and over the phone for whole pizzas, as well as for calzones and breadsticks.

"It's nice to know that there are vegan restaurants out there," said Megan, who works at a nearby business.

Customers choose from a variety of fruit, vegetable and faux-meat combinations, including phoni-pepperoni, the Aloha favorite and the garlic-sauce favorite (his most popular), or make their own creation.

Ken Sutto, a volunteer at Sidecar in the University District, is a fan of the pizzeria.

"It's really great. It's really popular in the U-District, and a lot of vegans really like it a lot. Actually, a lot of people in general really like it," Sutto said.

Breaking the mold

Kemsley created the majority of the recipes. "I had a test of many meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. I would provide them with an A and B option, but I wouldn't tell them which was which.... I would offer that as free food to them in lieu of going on-line and filling out a survey."

The survey asked for comparisons of the cheeses, textures and tastes. Afterward, Kemsley and his wife, Miki, gathered the data to determine which combinations and textures were most popular across the board.

Kemsley admits vegan cheese differs from traditional pizza cheese. "It melts, but it doesn't melt the same as regular mozzarella does. Any kind of dairy cheese typically offers a stringy feel or texture. But no vegan cheese that I have ever tried offers that same stringy texture, though it does melt," Kemsley said.

Changing careers

Kemsley previously provided technical support for a local major bank. "I had been fighting the corporate game since 1994 ...and realized about 1998 that working in a corporate environment was very unhealthy for me," he said.

Kemsley started to explore other options for himself. He already knew how to make good pizza, and when he became a vegan six years ago, he said he was determined to create an item that held true to his beliefs.

He and Miki scouted out areas in Fremont and Capitol Hill but knew their best option was the University District. "It's a really good location for bringing in the vegan clientele," Kemsley said. "If they want to eat vegan, they come to the U-District."

Reaching customers

Kemsley's customers discover him mainly through word-of-mouth. There is a strong vegan community, especially in the University District, with at least four other businesses offering vegan menus.

People also seek Kemsley out. He receives e-mails from as far away as France and Australia. "I just received an e-mail from a potential customer who is planning some kind of vegan trek and is plotting their route and thought they would let me know," Kemsley said.

Kemsley has established himself as a successful alternative pizzeria, yet customers continue to ask him the same question: "They're always asking, 'Is everything vegan?' Yes, everything's vegan!"

Abby Lund writes about places Off the Beaten Path in location and business philosophy on the third Wednesday of the month. She can be reached at

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