Powered by veggies, a family bounces back from disaster

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LUHV's burger, made of sweet-and-spicy black bean, plantain, and poblano.

The veggie burger is having a moment.

The proof is in Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists have poured more than $200 million into companies making "veggie burgers that bleed": the highly engineered meat facsimile Impossible Burger and its competitor, the Beyond Burger that produce pink and juicy patties that resemble beef in appearance and taste.

Proof is also in Manhattan - at Momofuku Nishi, where people have been lining up to try the Impossible Burger, and at chef upstarts like Superiority Burger, a veggie-burger joint that got a two-star "very good" review from the New York Times.

Entering that market with significantly less fanfare is Hatboro's LUHV Food, a business born out of personal and financial disaster, resilience, and immigrant determination.

The family business makes a sweet-and-spicy black bean, plantain, and poblano burger that decidedly does not bleed. But, at eight months old, the company is selling 6,000 of them a month at stores from New York to Virginia, and is set to open its first vegan cafe this month.

It's an unlikely turn for the Lucci family, Argentinean immigrants who've been in the restaurant business in the Philadelphia suburbs for 20 years.

Chef Daniel Lucci and wife Silvia opened the 40-seat Cafe con Leche in Newtown in 1997. In 2005, they opened the 200-seat Patagonia in Richboro.

"I used to say to people, 'We're the American dream,' " Silvia Lucci said. "And then things went really bad."

They had invested everything they had in Patagonia, and into sending their oldest son, Facundo, to Johns Hopkins University. Then, the recession hit hard. Money was so tight they canceled their health insurance - but then Silvia got sick, culminating in a stroke. "I couldn't get out of bed and I just couldn't function," she said. "There's nothing more scary than not being able to take care of your children."

They closed Patagonia and declared bankruptcy.

"We lost everything that we had," Silvia said.

But they still had Cafe con Leche. Daniel Lucci was cooking there every day for a steady stream of regulars, including vegans. In a dark mood one day, he asked a customer: "Why are you so happy all the time?" She said, "I'm vegan."

She urged him to try it, and he was instantly converted. He started making big pots of kale, quinoa, beans, seaweed, and flax seed he called "energy soup" for Silvia, who was recovering.

After cooking professionally for decades, developing vegan recipes became a challenge for Daniel: "It's easy to cook with heavy cream, butter," he said. "Anybody can do that."

Soon, Silvia and Facundo were also vegan, and Daniel had added a full vegan menu at Cafe con Leche. It sold well, but the response to his black bean burger, bound with plantain instead of egg, was remarkable. People kept asking for extra patties to cook at home.

Daniel had been bottling balsamic vinaigrette for years to sell at Tanner Bros. Dairy Farm in Richboro. Silvia thought they could sell the burgers there, too, and asked Facundo to help.

He had graduated from college in 2013 with a few hundred thousand dollars in debt and a minimum-wage job at a recording studio in New York City. His parents were helping him, but he worried about his three younger siblings. "I realized because of my debt it would be a hardship for them."

So, last year, he did something he never imagined. He moved home and went into business with his parents.

He designed the packaging, made a website, applied for trademarks, and coaxed a formal recipe out of his father, always an improvisational cook. They made batches of burgers in the restaurant kitchen early in the morning. There were setbacks, including a trademark issue that came up after they'd already ordered 20,000 packages.

But, since formally launching LUHV this year, they've gotten the burgers into about 30 stores in the area, including Kimberton Whole Foods and food co-ops like Weaver's Way. Last week, they'd just returned from handing out samples at a Mom's Organic Market in Virginia. The manager texted Silvia to congratulate her on sales, adding: "That might be our most successful demo ever!"

Daniel and Facundo run the production line once or twice a week. (They recently invested in a machine called the Patty-O-Matic, though it's designed for meat, so it jams often.) They can produce 10,000 burgers a week if the market demands it. They're hoping one day it will. "It was like the American dream started all over again," Facundo said. "When I was a kid, I saw the benefits of it, like the toys. But now I can see the American dream is a lot of hard work, but working together."

In October, they aim to open a LUHV factory cafe in Hatboro, a testing ground for new products that could be sold in stores, and - if things take off - a model for a vegan fast-food chain. The menu includes the "energy soup," which they'd like to sell frozen, plus salads, the black bean burger, and a lentil burger that's still in auditions for mass production.

"People like it," Facundo said. "But I'm trying to get Daniel to give me something even more spectacular."

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Critic Craig LaBan's take on the LUHV Burger

If you are looking for a mock-meat kind of veggie burger, this one isn't quite that. But if you are craving a plant-based patty that actually tastes good, the LUHV burger achieves that goal admirably. The black bean plantain poblano version is a well-crafted mouthful of sweet and spicy, with just enough texture from the beans to keep it from falling to mush. I'd eat another. I like the flavor of it a lot.