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Beyond Erewhon: Inside the L.A. grocery store where all the cool vegans are flocking

Asia Rain and Matt Fontana sit on the steps outside their store.
Asia Rain, left, and Matt Fontana, owners of Besties Vegan Paradise in East Hollywood, sit outside the store awaiting the start of their vegan run club.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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On a rainy Saturday afternoon in late March, a block of East Hollywood is unusually quiet but for the corner of Fountain Avenue and North Edgemont Street. There, a line snakes halfway around the perimeter of a little vegan grocery store that’s sparking with activity.

Inside, grime music blasts as a pop-up vendor doles out vegan banh mi to shoppers who clutch bamboo toilet paper and vegan lox. Even a Siberian husky named Chaka gets in on the action, scarfing up a vegan dog treat — every canine who comes through the door gets one.

“Welcome!” yells Matt Fontana, the store’s tattoo-sleeved co-founder.

People stand at a counter in a store with the words Besties Vegan Paradise on the wall above them
The Besties store after its run club event, which always ends with free soft serve for all.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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Various types of vegan jerky on a grocery store's shelves.
Besties sells a wide array of vegan jerky.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“Hey Paul, hi!” Fontana bellows in his New York accent, while filling a cup with the store’s vegan soft serve ice cream for another customer. Then, waving his free arm: “Everyone, you guys — come on in!”

It’s a typical day at Besties Vegan Paradise. Since opening in 2019, the grocery store has become a hub for a particular type of cool vegan in Los Angeles. The clientele is culturally diverse, spanning age, gender and style. But it coalesces around especially trendy aesthetics and a staunch desire to live responsibly.

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Environmentally conscious, animal-loving DJs, chefs, writers, filmmakers, graphic designers and other creatives mingle there over free natural wine and vegan Brie during a “meet the maker” session, showcasing how the store’s cheese is made. “Open forum” talks there address topics such as environmental sustainability and the food chain. As you grab a beverage out of the cooler, hand-painted lettering above proclaims you’re “So Cool You Hot.”

There are other vegan markets in L.A. — X Market in Venice and Glowing Plant Based Eatery & Market in Echo Park, among them. But Besties is the only one that sources 100% of its products from all-vegan manufacturers so that customers don’t have to scrutinize labels. And while the store’s purpose is utilitarian, Besties is as much about the vibes — the shopping experience and connections made while there — as it is about picking up a fresh bottle of plant milk for your morning cereal. Customers trade tips about vegan tattoo ink during Wu-Tang Wednesdays, which Besties observes with religious fervor. (Every Wednesday, Wu-Tang Clan’s hip-hop plays loudly and on repeat in the store from opening until closing.) Over the last five years, the establishment has grown beyond the parameters of a retail store and into a cultural center for vegans in L.A. focused on food, fashion, art and athleticism.

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Fontana, who sports a shaved head and a gold tooth, and co-owner Asia Rain, a vegan tattoo artist whose studio is above the store, host these in-person events at Besties to give like-minded customers a space to socialize and vegan-curious newcomers a place to learn about the diet. Pop-ups supporting local vegan brands, such as Tiffany Luong’s Long Beach-based Vegan Bánh Mì Th?o, are a regular occurrence. Besties makes its own chocolate, candies and cheese — “celebratory foods people are emotionally attached to,” Fontana said. Rain also designs a line of street-inspired branded hoodies, T-shirts and socks that come in handy at the store’s popular weekly, vegan 5K run club that ends at Besties with free soft serve for all.

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“Veganism isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle and a mind-set,” Fontana said. “It’s an act of love.”

Veganism has come a long way from the days of limp soy hot dogs. In 1971, author Frances Moore Lappé published “Diet for a Small Planet,” a seminal guide that argued Americans’ insatiable appetite for meat was damaging Earth — and our bodies. Soon after, meatless diets gained popularity among a small percentage of Americans. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that soy became a more common replacement for animal-based proteins such as meat and dairy, standing in for burgers, ice cream and other American comfort foods. Restaurants and grocery stores now offer shockingly sophisticated and culturally diverse items. But veganism still suffers from something of a branding issue: It’s often seen as an exclusive, hippie-ish club of well-meaning but judgy disciples, with restrictive diets, who can afford $42 artisanal vegan salami. “People ask me if I miss meat or dairy,” Julio Torres says while discussing his veganism in a 2017 Comedy Central stand-up show. “I mean, I miss being liked.”

Part of Besties’ mission is rebranding veganism as something that’s diverse, inclusive and, yes, even hip.

A patron shows off a "Besties" thigh tattoo from Asia Rain.

A patron shows off a “Besties” thigh tattoo from Asia Rain. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Cesar Asebedo enjoys a vegan ice cream cone.

Cesar Asebedo enjoys a vegan ice cream cone. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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A group of people running in a crosswalk
The Vegan Run Club in action.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s for everyone: goths, punk rockers, hippies, bike messengers, basics,” Fontana said. “Hip-hop heads and normcore hikers and campers. Veganism is small, but it crosses all identities. It’s for anyone who truly champions equality, who realizes they have a chance to make a difference in real time.”

The charge Fontana is leading has been shared by a handful of other vegan outposts in the U.S., according to Alicia Kennedy, author of 2023’s “No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating.” She notes food destinations with similar “hip, young, vegan identities,” such as Williamsburg’s Foodswings (which closed in 2014), the Chicago Diner and Philadelphia’s Grindcore House.

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Collectively, these spaces are valuable, she says, because vegans, historically, have always been far more diverse than the dominant cultural stereotype: “This white, crunchy, kind of angry activist vibe,” Kennedy said. “Has it changed? Not really. So anything that pushes back against that is going to help change the mainstream perspective.”

On a recent Friday night, Besties hosted a lively vegan Mexican street food event, featuring Jessie Gil’s Sylmar-based pop-up El Compa Vegano, that drew more than 150 people over four hours. Straight-edge 20-somethings, with nose rings and decorative tooth gems, mingled with middle-aged “basics” in jeans and unisex button-down shirts outside the store. Carne asada, with impeccably seasoned lion’s mane mushrooms standing in for steak, sizzled on the grill as plumes of smoke filled the air. Some customers sat on a custom skateboard obstacle that doubles as a Brooklyn-style “stoop” outside Besties’ front door. (The shop lends it to local skater kids.) Hand-painted signs designed by Rain hung in the window, advertising “Classic Hot Dog $6.96” and “Oat Based Soft Serve” in the style of a 1950s soda fountain. It was a mashup of crowds from the Venice Beach Skatepark, the KITH streetwear store in Beverly Hills and the Smorgasburg food market.

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An array of tacos that include vegan beef, rice and mushrooms.
Vegan carne asada, carnitas, al pastor and pollo tacos from El Compa Vegano.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

“The reason this place feels so authentic is because they’re making healthy choices for themselves — they’re walking the walk — but they’re cool kids too, and that makes it realistic. You can do it too,” said Besties customer D’Andrée Galipeau, a DJ who lives nearby and “leans vegan.”

Fontana, 48, grew up in a Sicilian-American family in Brooklyn in the 1970s and ’80s immersed in the hip-hop culture of the time. “Anything anti-establishment,” he says. He collected basketball sneakers and tattoos, and carried his skateboard everywhere. His mother was a vegetarian and he, an animal lover, followed suit at 14. He turned vegan at 20 when — while studying eastern philosophy and religion at San Francisco State University he met his now ex-wife and she taught him about the diet.

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“I hadn’t seen behind the veil,” he said. “I didn’t know about the industrialized animal agriculture industry, the enslavement of millions of female animals across the world,” the latter referring to the dairy industry. “Once all of that got explained to me, it was an obvious choice as somebody who rejects violence, rejects oppression and is a champion of reproductive freedom.”

Fontana went on to become an influential streetwear, sneaker and hip-hop fashion entrepreneur in the early to mid-2000s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The cultural influences of his past are apparent at Besties. The store creates “limited-edition” soft serve flavors to match its calendar of food pop-ups. The Besties hot dogs pay homage to the Coney Island of Fontana’s youth, the soft serve to the Carvel ice cream he grew up with.

Two hands passing off a vegan ice cream cone as a person stands holding a small white dog in the background.
Asia Rain serves up vegan ice cream. Matt Fontana holds their Maltese mix, MacKenzie, in the background.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s got to be lighthearted,” Fontana said of making veganism appealing. “We’re elevating veganism to be something that’s culturally aspirational as opposed to something that’s frowned upon by society.”

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If Fontana is the mouthpiece of Besties, Rain, 34, is the artistic eye. She was born Asia Rain Phoenix (her last name is one her parents invented for their kids, and she goes by her first and middle name now). She spent her early years in Victoria, British Columbia, with parents who battled addictions, she says, and took odd jobs.

When Rain was 10, her parents moved her and her two younger siblings to Atlanta. They were undocumented immigrants, so when the kids got older, they couldn’t open a bank account, get a driver’s license or apply for financial scholarships.

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Rain left home at 17 and spent a year traveling around the U.S. as a carnival barker (“Step right up!” she demonstrated) and airbrushing T-shirts at fairs and in malls. That led to work in an Indiana tattoo shop. She received her citizenship at 24, at which point she’d built a thriving clientele in the Midwest.

For the first time, she had a steady income. She bought a house with her partner, grew her own food, kept bees. But she felt stagnant and depressed. She gave it all up in 2016 and traveled to Peru, where she spent six months hiking and studying the culture, Spanish and the natural environment, including how to make tattoo ink from fruit.

When she returned to the U.S. in 2017, she met Fontana through a fine art tattooer. Through their conversations, Rain quickly decided to go vegan.

“Everywhere I looked it was ... government manipulation and disrespect of natural resources,” she said. “And I felt powerless. Veganism is an act of choice to abstain from committing cruelty to anything. And that’s what I wanted to do.”

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Three people stand in a store eating ice cream.
Ash Williams, left, Addison Blue and Nicolette Brannan enjoy free vegan soft serve after their weekly run.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

While dating over the next year or so — he living in L.A. and she in Vancouver — Fontana shared multiple business plans with Rain, including one for a vegan 7-Eleven-type store. He invited her to be his partner. Then things progressed rapidly.

Fontana sold almost everything he owned, put the rest in storage and lived out of his car — a black Jaguar — for several months in late 2018. Rain sold her beloved, baby blue VW Westfalia and moved to L.A. They lived in an Airbnb while they remodeled a former mini-mart. In January 2019, they opened Besties, where she now tattoos many of the customers.

Rain came up with the name: “If we all treated each other like besties, the world wouldn’t be in the state that it’s in,” she said.

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For both Rain and Fontana, cool cachet and social-environmental responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Besties might dress up the vegan lifestyle in trendy clothing and designer sneakers, but it still demands from them rigorous research, unwavering commitment, attention to detail and relentless principle.

“There’s Besties Vegan Paradise, the cultural center — and it says ‘All are welcome’ on the door,” Fontana said. “But personally, I’m a vegan activist. This place is my activism.”

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Helping plant-based brands connect with customers is central to Besties’ mission. Most businesses charge pop-up vendors for space or take a percentage of their sales from events, Fontana said. Besties does neither.

A portrait of a bearded man holding a takeout container of nachos.

Jessie Gil, founder of El Compa Vegano, holds vegan nachos, fully loaded. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

A woman looks at a product in a green box in a vegan grocery store.

Julie Reyes shops for groceries at Besties Vegan Paradise. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

“They do a great job of marketing me in their newsletters and on social media,” Luong said of Besties during her bánh mì event (she’s done 10 there now). “I feel supported, I feel seen.”

What does Besties get out of giving away space and time for free?

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“Traffic,” Fontana said. “These pop-ups have followings that they bring to us. But it’s also part of how we’re breaking down the stereotypes of veganism, that ‘not for you’ club. These vendors showcase what’s usually the food from their culture and they bring with them a totally different community than maybe we’re able to reach directly.”

Fontana said one family even comes in every Saturday from Aliso Viejo for the soft serve.

The secret recipe took about three years to perfect, as Fontana and Rain experimented with coconut milk and soy milk for its base. (It’s now made with oat milk.) Ultimately, it was Rain’s mechanical expertise that made the difference. She took apart Besties’ large Taylor soft serve machine and adjusted it to dispense nondairy milk. “Changing the viscosity changes how you experience the flavor,” she said.

A group portrait of people in athletic wear in front of Besties Vegan Paradise.
Vegan runners at Besties after their 5K run.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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The store gives away soft serve to customers and vendors so readily that some question the business model.

“A friend of mine was like, ‘What’s the perk of them giving away all this stuff for free?’” said Sara Schunck, a member of Besties’ run club. “But the best people come out and you’re looking forward to the ice cream at the end. I’ve met a lot of really cool people.”

Fontana, now sitting on the skateboard-stoop outside the store, pops a vegan sour gummy into his mouth, contemplating the question.

“It’s about spreading the vegan love, paying it forward,” he said.

One vegan ice cream scoop at a time.

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