The Philly Cheesesteak, a sandwich made with steak and melted cheese in a long bread roll, and invented by a Philadelphia hot dog vendor in 1930, is a staple of the city and even a major tourist draw—visitors often come looking for an “authentic” cheesesteak.
But at Govinda’s Vegetarian on South Street, restaurant owner Haryasva Dasa isn’t bothered with authenticity. Rather, he’s created the traditional sandwich shop experience with a difference. His karma-free “mock” meat sandwiches are made with soy proteins and vegetables, offered to God and free of innocent animals.
Haryasva never liked meat, even as a kid growing up in a Christian Baptist family of ten in South Philadelphia. When he heard about vegetarianism for the first time on a TV program at the age of twenty-two, he decided right then and there that he would become a vegetarian.
“I was very thin—six feet tall and only 143 pounds,” he recalls. “My mother said, ‘You’re gonna die!’”
But he didn’t die. Instead, the next year, in 1975, his brother, the late Siddha Rupa Dasa, took him to the Philadelphia Hare Krishna temple and gave him a Bhagavad-gita to read.
“It was a confirmation for me,” he says. “It was what I’d been looking for all my life.”
Haryasva joined ISKCON soon after, but it wasn’t until 1985, upon returning from distributing spiritual literature in India, that he was introduced to his life’s service. He was asked by ISKCON Philadelphia leader Ravindra Svarupa Dasa to help run the outreach center above Govinda’s restaurant, then on 529 South Street, and began conducting Bhagavad-gita classes there.
When Haryasva also began helping out at the register in the restaurant, it was a revelation for him.
“I was dressed in regular clothes, and the customers would always ask me, ‘Are you a Hare Krishna?’” he recalls. “And when I’d say yes, they’d reply, ‘Can we ask you questions?’ I was used to having to approach people. But the unique thing about working in a restaurant, I discovered, was that people would approach me and inquire about Krishna consciousness.”
When Govinda’s previous owners moved on to other things, Haryasva took over, and the restaurant became the introductory doorway through which most young people joined ISKCON in Phildelphia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a thriving time, during which many members of the Straight-Edge movement—a subculture of hardcore punk whose followers already abstained from alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, meat-eating and promiscuous sex—became devotees.
Eventually, Govinda’s closed. But in 1999, it reopened as Govinda’s Gourmet Vegetarian, a full-service dining restaurant on 1408 South Street.
Over the years, as the clientele changed—from predominantly Caucasian New Age people in the 1980s, to Straight Edge fans in the 1990s, to a diverse crowd of local hip-hop kids, Indian professionals, and students from the University of Pennsylvania in the 2000s—Haryasva saw an opportunity for greater prasadam distribution by moving on from the traditional Indian-style ISKCON fare.
“I like to take the pulse of the people,” he says. “To some extent, you have to pay attention to the clientele which has sought you out. And these people wanted vegan.”
Sure enough, when Haryasva replaced certain items—such as his delicious saffron cheesecakes—with vegan versions, they began to fly off the shelves.
In 2005, he opened a second eatery—Govinda’s Gourmet to Go—on the corner of Broad and South streets, a hip area at the heart of downtown Philadelphia. In this simple sandwich shop, with a focus on speedy service, Haryasva departed further from the typical ISKCON fare.
“At first, I didn’t want to go the mock meat route,” he says. “But the mission is to distribute prasadam. And I kew this would increase it.”
While Govinda’s full service dining location has been temporarily closed down, Govinda’s to Go has become a hit. Offerings are headed by the shop’s own version of the famous Philly Cheesesteak. The extremely popular “Philly Chicken Cheesesteak” uses a vegan wheat roll or sesame seed Italian roll, soy ‘chicken’ instead of steak and rainbow peppers instead of onions—both grilled in olive oil and asafetida—vegan mayonnaise, and the customer’s choice of mozerella or vegan cheese.
Also popular is the Philly Pepper Steak Sandwich, with assorted peppers, soy steak, vegan cheese, and Govinda’s house gravy; and the zucchini melt, with roasted zucchini, basil, asafetida, tomatoes, black olives and cheese.
Of course, some Indian vegetarian influence remains. There’s the kofta ball sub, and the subji wrap, cited as a highlight when Govinda’s was voted Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Philadelphia magazine’s ‘Best of Philly 2007’. There’s also the traditional lunch platter, and a variety of soups and salads for those who don’t dig the mock meats.
Being so delicious for so long, Govinda’s has been embraced by the Philadelphia community—not just by the local African Americans, students, and Indian professionals, but also by civil servants such as policemen, firemen, and council men.
“We’re not the Hare Krishnas that are different,” Haryasva says. “We’re the Hare Krishnas that are part of the South Street fabric. And it’s all due to prasadam distribution.”
Haryasva especially savors the many heartwarming exchanges with his customers. There’s the policeman who came to Govinda’s saying that his doctor had recommended he eat more vegetarian meals as a remedy for his heart problems. “The first sandwich is on me,” Haryasva responded. “We want to keep our brass healthy.” And he brought a sandwich out to the policeman in his car, who returned a few days later and became a regular customer.
Then there’s the man who forgot his wallet while in line for the buffet, and was about to go get it when Haryasva told him, “Don’t worry, stay in line and get your food—it’s not your money we really want, it’s your heart!” “You’ve already got my heart,” the man replied. “As they say, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Haryasva always remembers the businessman from Europe who ate at Govinda’s during every one of his annual visits to Philadelphia, and chased the cashier down the street on his way home to give him an extra tip. Then there’s all the people who ask, “What is it that makes your food so good?” To which Haryasva replies, “Our secret incredient is the same one that made mom and grandma’s cooking so good—love.”
“Lots of people love that we don’t just say grace, but cook the food specifically for God, and don’t even taste it until He does,” Haryasva says.
At sixty years old, with nearly thirty years of working in the restaurant business, these exchanges are what motivate Haryasva to continue; as well as the drive to please ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, to whom prasadam distribution was extremely important.
Although fewer people join ISKCON through Govinda’s as they did in earlier years, the restaurant still provides those interested with an introduction to Krishna consciousness. Guests follow the conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita every Tuesday evening from 6pm to 8pm, and learn how to implement it in their own lives. On Wednesdays, Haryasva supplies prasadam at a yoga program at the University of Pennsylvania. And on the first Friday of every month, kirtan is chanted on the second floor of the restaurant, where Pancha Tattva Deities are worshipped.
In the future, one of Haryasva’s young staff plans to hold an introductory yoga program at the restaurant, with a focus on the essence of yoga: devotion to the Supreme.
Other future plans include acting on the feedback of customers, who, on websites such as yelp.com, claim that while the food at Govinda’s to Go is delicious, the service leaves a lot to be desired.
“It is true that we are weak in customer service, and so that’s number one for me right now,” Haryasva says. “Some of the young staff don’t understand service so well, so I’m setting up policies and procedures to give them more guidelines. I’ve also already hired some new people, including one staff member who will be solely focused on customer relations.”
Meanwhile the temporarily closed-down Govinda’s Gourmet Vegetarian restaurant will reopen at 1408 South Street next month, with a full, very affordable buffet, as well as vegan and vegetarian pizzas cooked in a brick oven.
But there’s something else that Haryasva, always with an eagle-eye on the changing tastes of the public, is even more excited about.
“There’s a new trend taking place within the vegetarian community, of straight vegetarian quisine without soy or saiten gluten,” he says. “So I think a huge market for traditional ISKCON prasadam such as curd subjis, fluffy rice, and wonderful organic salads, is on its way back.”
Of course, whatever form it takes, Haryasva feels fortunate to be distributing prasadam as a full-time service.
“I feel blessed that Krishna has been so kind as to give me a service I can remember Him by,” he concludes.