The Changing Face of Fitness Food

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Anyone who has worked in book publishing has probably heard of a little ritual called the “slush lunch.” This is the hour in which editorial assistants gather, break bread, and collectively sift through and reject assess the about a month’s worth of “slush”–or unsolicited submissions. If you think this sounds glamorous, you’d best dim your enthusiasm: as Laura Miller pointed out in her latest essay on the brave new world of self-publishing, no one who has not had to read a slush pile can understand just how terrible a lot of it is, or how tedious it is to read. What makes slush lunch tolerable is the promise of a free meal, which any chronically impoverished and half-starving publishing assistant is thrilled to have.

Back in my assistant days, I briefly was in charge of organizing my company’s slush lunches. This meant, among other things, giving each assistant a periodic chance to request where we’d order takeout from. When my turn rolled around, I typically insisted on one place, and one only: The Pump.

The Pump–also known as “The Pump Energy Food”–was a chain of restaurants designed to satisfy the appetites of, if I may be crude, meatheads. Nearly everything on the menu was enhanced with a scoop of whey protein, a blob of coagulated egg whites, or a pound of steamed chicken. Why did I, then, insist on it? Because at the time, it was really one of the few places nearby that had nutrient dense vegetarian options (I hadn’t discovered OLD yet!). Yes, one can always find a salad on any mainstream dining menu, but what can be a drag as a vegan is finding salads or dishes that provide not only veggies, but appropriate sources of vegan protein, energy, and heft. The Pump, in spite of its adherence to a protein-obsessed mentality, did at least feature brown rice and veggies, BIG salads, baked falafel, hummus, tahini dressings, and veggie burgers.

Of course, this made me very happy. It did not make my coworkers very happy, and my turn as menu selector was usually greeted with a chorus of moaning and groaning. I asked my former coworker to comment upon what she remembers about the Pump, she replied:

“I have no memory of actually eating the food from Pump–I’ve probably repressed it–but I vividly recal staring at the columns on the take-out menu: It was like a fitness food SAT test. ‘Take one squirt of lentil soup from Row A, place on egg whites from Row B, then top with sprouts from Row C.’ It seemed everything involved pouring soup over your salad.”

Thanks, Annie. This is not an innacurate description of what the Pump once was: vegan friendly, but not because it felt ethically conscious, environmentally aware, or focused on local and organic foods, but because it pandered to a “clean eating” crowd. And it certainly didn’t feel like a pleasurable dining experience to anyone who wasn’t interested in getting ripped.

Oh, how times have changed!!! This, my friends, is the new face of The Pump:

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the Pump had moved to 17th Street (a block from my office). I chuckled. “Good old Pump, I thought. I wonder if they still serve six egg white omelets sprinkled with soy protein powder and fat free refried beans?” Curious, I decided to peek inside. And that’s when I realized that the whole ethos of the place has changed.

The new slogan at the pump is “diet food is out, real food is in.” And in keeping with this, the menu options have been totally reinvented. Yes, the SAT process is still in place: whether in a salad, wrap, or brown rice plate, you’re encouraged to a source of protein (organic tofu is offered, and I believe baked falafel is too), nutrient dense veggies and legumes (sweet potatoes, lentil soup, vegan chili), and good fats (hummus and guac are offered, along with cheese). But the quality of options is so much better! Tofu is organic. Vegetables are marinated and slow roasted–in other words, they’re prepared with flavor, rather than steaming alone. Dressings are housemade and fresh. And even the carnivorous options are a comparative upgrade: at least a few of them are grass fed.

And get this: The Pump also serves Norwalk pressed juices and unbelievably tasty smoothies, including a green smoothie that contains avocado. Um, what? When did the protein palace get so savvy about organic foods, quality ingredients, and, well, juicing?!

Needless to say, I was thrilled to see how radically the place had changed, and I marched back the next morning to scope it out with my camera. Check out the amazing cooler of fresh juices and smoothies, which are replenished all day:

As soon as I saw these amazing concoctions, I knew breakfast was served. But where to start? There were a plethora of options, including the green smoothie mentioned above and a blueberry ginger concoction that sounded divine but contained yogurt. Hoping modification would be easy, I requested a smoothie concoction of my own. And I got it:

Banana, blueberry, organic rice milk, ice, a touch of ginger, and–at my request–some hemp protein that I’d brought. No, I don’t usually carry around protein powder. I wanted to see if they’d be open to making a smoothie fresh to order and using a protein powder that wasn’t whey or soy, and they were!

I also picked up a delicious green apple+green juice that I enjoyed later at my desk:

I LOVE that the Pump offers pressed juice in an 8 oz size — 16 oz bottles can be too much, and I don’t like to leave fresh juices open for long, so an 8 oz bottle is a great snack sized option.

I also got some pictures of the menu, which includes far more options (and more vegan options) than what you’re going to see on the online menu:

Options for everyone.

Among my clients, self proclaimed athletes are, I must say, often the most difficult. People with evolving food habits simply want guidance and information; hardcore fitness enthusiasts, on the other hand, are often a bit stubborn and self righteous, lecturing me ad infinitum about the precise macro ratio they need, and the precise kind of protein, and how many calories at however many intervals. (If you’re so happy with this lifestyle, I always want to ask, then why did you call me?)

I like to think that places like The Pump are representative, though, of a major shift in the way the American consumer thinks about fitness food. Gone are the days where the only things recommended to athletes were watery protein shakes, egg whites, and brown rice. Sure, those foods still work for a lot of athletes, but I think that many other athletes are learning–just as the rest of us are learning–that quality is as important as macronutrient ratios, that organic and local matter as much as “high in protein,” and that plant based foods can provide just as much, if not more performance enhancing energy as animal foods. The Good Food Revolution is finally hitting the gym.

I ran this sentiment by Danny and Elizabeth, who are the directors of operations and publicity at The Pump. They confirmed that the chain has shifted emphasis away from fat-free and protein-obsessed, and toward organic, sustainable, and nutrient-dense. The Pump is and always will be a place where people who care about fitness flock, and it will always offer its clientele protein-rich and lean food. But the definition of what constitutes high quality protein is expanding. Danny and Elizabeth seemed as enthusiastic as can be about these changes, and I hope that my own excitement was visible to them. It thrills me to see chains and restaurants that cater to a body-conscious group of eaters growing more and more open to a plant-inspired diet. Today, it’s The Pump. Tomorrow? Well, let’s just see that I’d love to see hummus, guac, vegan chili and pressed juice in every eatery and deli around the world.

One day.

For now, I have a new spot to get fresh smoothies, juices, and nutrient-dense salads — just the way I like ’em! Sure, there are a few things I’d love to see incorporated into the Pump menu. I’d love more options than tofu in the “protein” section — maybe tempeh or quinoa, for instance. I’d love a vegan, non-soy protein powder at the smoothie bar. I’d love to see hemp and almond milk as options, along with rice and soy, and for the pre-made smoothies to have more rice milk and less yogurt.

And of course, I would love to see a more plant-based emphasis on the whole, meaning less meat options. But–and this is a huge “but”–I’m a big believer that menu segregation does little for veganism. Simply having eateries that are either all veg or omni-centric only compounds the idea that veganism is exotic and fringe. I love and support establishments that are all vegan, of course, but what we need are more eateries that offer equal opportunity for vegans and their non-vegan friends. I want to see turkey and chicken are served right next to tofu and lentil stew; egg whites and hemp seeds offered with equal enthusiasm; a plant-based entree for every grilled salmon fillet. That the Pump offers tofu and beans as protein options alongside more traditional,omnivorous proteins is, I think, a huge first step. After all, how many athletes and healthy eaters who would never otherwise taste a green smoothie or hummus on a salad will be willing to try them now, because the options are visible? Hooray to the Pump for offering that kind of visibility, and for evolving with our foodie zeitgeist. I can’t wait for my next visit.

And I’ll tell the new generation of assistants that they have a pretty great takeout option, too 😉


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  1. Wow, great post. I tried The Pump years ago and was seriously underwhelmed. I am very excited to try their new juices! This is a great option, since my meathead boyfriend loves these kinds of places 😉

  2. Goes to show that we shouldn’t always rule a place out eh and that they have the ability to change with the market demand.

    I love this : But–and this is a huge “but”–I’m a big believer that menu segregation does little for veganism. Simply having eateries that are either all veg or omni-centric only compounds the idea that veganism is exotic and fringe.

    Totally agree!

  3. Wow that place looks awesome, i wish we had fun places like that around here. Another reason why i want to move to the big city! 🙂

  4. Hey Gena, thanks for the info about the Pump! I’m always seeking out places that offer some seriously nutritious, hearty, and satisfying veg options in the city. This looks like a place to definitely try. I’ve been hearing about a number of similar take-out-friendly restaurants in that area (Flatiron/Chelsea/Gramercy) and just HOPE this trend will start moving north to Grand Central environs, around where I work. That neck of the woods seems entrenched in the chain mentality (Subway, Cafe Metro on every block)… it would be nice to see more “health”-oriented spots – would love to have some fresh green juice mid-workday!

  5. Ooh – I would love to stand in front of the juice cooler with a corporate credit card in hand! A girl can dream, right?

    I too like restaurants that cater to a broad audience and don’t make vegetarian/vegan foods seem elitist or extreme.

  6. Your posts are so well written, it blows me away. I can always look forward to either a light, witty read, some pretty pics, or an insightful and thought provoking article.
    So funny, cause I am so far from vegan or raw , that u might think it odd that I read…but I only wish I could be in NY and dine with you a bit…have a job for me and I am there.
    i am one day hoping to start a new and better blog — i feel i would love to have a blog as vivid and interesting and accomplished as yours.

  7. I LOVE The Pump! The 17th street location is right near my apartment actually, so I’ve been there a few times. My brother (pretty much a “meathead” haha but I would never say that to his face…) was the one who introduced me to The Pump about two years ago. He used to eat there literally almost every meal when he lived in NYC! Pretty funny. But I loved it too, and was so happy to see the tofu, grass-fed meats, and fresh juices pop up! You should try the “Refresh” version of juice they have… watermelon, cucumber, spinach and parsley. My fave! And their lentil soup is just amazing. 🙂
    And I agree, it is great to have the vegan and carnivorous options side by side at a restaurant, cuz places like that you can go to with someone who’s not willing to give up their meat for the meal, and yet everyone can still walk away happy, and healthy to boot!

  8. Wow, I wish we had one here! Due to food allergies and picky eaters in our group, the only place anyone wants to go is a pizza buffet with a salad bar – a horribly weak salad bar with wilted lettuce and no vegan protein options. But it’s nice to see more vegan options popping up and I try to support them as much as possible.

  9. I totally agree with you Gena. Any step in the right direction is fabulous!! All it takes is for someone to be introduced to different healthier options. I’m glad that many places are starting to do that… and the smoothie looks delicious!

  10. oh man, that place sounds awesome! and so does that smoothie that you got!! such great flavors!!!

    i’m glad they’re catering more towards those goals and being environmentally friendly! that’s a big thing i look for when i eat out at certain places…i love when they’re local, organic or trying to be sustainable!

  11. I really enjoyed reading this post and the points you touched on about the changing perspectives of “clean” and “healthy” eating encompassing different diets. It’s great to see the shifts from society to allow egg-whites and legumes to share the spotlights 🙂
    Here in Montreal we only have a handful of vegetarian restaurants and very few vegan ones, and being the only vegetarian in my circle I rarely eat at them, but I am noticing that more and more restaurants are offering vegetarian friendly courses and nutrient dense salads. I’m also noticing my friends will now at times look to me for guidance in choosing a vegetarian option. It’s great because they are experiencing meals and foods they normally wouldn’t and all because a restaurant they are familiar with is giving them that option.

  12. Next time you’re in the Bay area, you need to check out The Plant Cafe Organic (or just peruse their menu online). I love going there to get my quinoa bowl, juice, or salad w/flax dressing, but I can also bring the bf/coworkers and they can get a thai chicken wrap, or chicken salad sandwich, etc.

  13. You just changed my life – because I found one right by my work! I frequently find myself unsatisfied with the health options of pickup meals on work breaks: overly oiled veggies, fake fruit smoothies, every rice besides brown, not a sweet potato in site, etc. Now, I can have it all – juice, veggies, grains and falafel – hallelujah! Thanks, Gena!

  14. I absolutely agree with your comments on the side-by-side eating of vegans and omnivores, so that everyone can really enjoy one another’s company in a culture that doesn’t yet embrace communal eating as much as it should 🙂

  15. Love the fresh juices added each day. Wish more grocers/cafes would offer this in addition to their standard fare.

  16. What a coincidence! I just moved literally next door to Pump and had their falafel for dinner. My boyfriend brought the menu home and I was really impressed. He’s been eating quite a few meals there lately so that makes me happy. It makes him more conscious of what he’s eating and he’s starting to think beyond calorie and fat content to actual nutrition. Going to check out their juices soon!

  17. Ok it’s so funny that you write this because not too long ago one of my coworkers mentioned to me that The Pump had opened on 17th St, which is of course a convenient lunch locale for us, and she wanted me to know since I’m the resident health conscious veg-head in the office. My knee-jerk reaction, however, was to think, meh, it’s probably all grilled chicken salads and egg whites, haha. Without your mini expose here, I would never have considered it! Now I’m so jazzed to have these options w/in spitting distance of work. See you there in about 3 hours, k? ;D

  18. Hi,
    I’m still fairly new to to your site but am sooooo greatful for the resources that you provide. I was so excited to the the pump on here. Wow talk about a major overhaul. I used to eat at the pump in midtown on 55th st. It was really the only healthy option near my job. I am so impressed they have come a long way. I can’t wait to check it out. I gave up on the pump after a while because it was just too bland and I had literally gone through almost all the menu options. Thanks for this:)

  19. I chuckled through the first half of this! Will definitely be checking out the Pump the next time I’m in USQ.

  20. A really thought-provoking post, complete with a restaurant review! I too wish there were more vegan/non-vegan places around. Thanks!

  21. I wish Houston would open one of these!

    Houston has gotten more local-centric lately (taps into Texas pride)…but this is still Texas, so one of the biggest prides is grass-fed, organic Texas beef.

    But I think these trends show a positive direction.

    Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on Michelle Obama’s health push? I’m skeptical on how effective it’ll be, but you never know.

  22. i’m impressed with this shift from the pump (and i have to say i was initially shocked to see that opening photo on your blog, considering i only know them as the protein-and-fat-free-obsessed joint they used to be). it’s encouraging to see a chain wake up and realize the importance of vegetables, good fats and other plant-based foods. when we start seeing that nationwide, then i’ll be truly excited – but this is a nice step!

    ps: i saw that article from laura miller a while back and was nodding my head the whole time. at least the food world is taking steps forward, since “modern advancements” like self-publishing are basically backpedaling literature into dreck. sigh.

  23. This is GREAT news! I used to get carry-out all the time when I worked around the corner (vegetarian then, not vegan and training for a marathon). They have been off my radar for some time now. I’ll have to pop in. Thanks for the post!

  24. I agree– I love it when restaurants offer BOTH vegan and non-vegan options! When I ate a more vegan diet, I found that I often preferred the food at places that weren’t exclusively vegan anyway!

  25. I totally agree with you, Gena! I think food segregation turns people off from patronizing certain establishments. Ideally, eateries should have options for everyone. The Pump looks awesome! It actually reminds me of Chipotle, only MUCH better! Would love to eat there.

    I’m doing semi-raw this week, and I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but I do eat mainly vegetarian foods and I would LOVE to see restaurants have more veggie options! My husband is a all out carnivore, and even he enjoys veggie meals when we have them, so just having the option would introduce more people to other options.


  26. I wish I lived near a restaurant like this. Until then, I can download the menu and re-create things at my house. Luckily I rather enjoy that!

  27. I love Pump! It’s now my friends and I’s go-to choice when we meet up because it’s pretty healthy! 🙂

  28. Oh, Gena – you’re after my heart! During my last (second) trip to NYC, I ate at the Pump two meals a day, every day – at multiple locations! That was back in their meathead days, but it was the best/healthiest food I knew of at the time as a tourist, and they saved me from having to subsist on fast-food salads. Opening your blog page today and seeing their logo was a little jump for my heart. I’m very glad to hear that they’re evolving. If I ever make it back to the City, I know exactly where I’ll be eating. 🙂

  29. If you’re ever in DC (Dupont, Georgetown) you would like Sweet Green. Wonderful fresh salads with omni and vegan options and an environmental ethos. I happen to love their fro-yo too… but it would be great if more yogurt places would start serving vegan ‘yogurt’ options as well.

  30. Wow this place looks great! I’m so jealous it is a block from your job!!!!! Also I love their slogan, it is my life slogan right now 🙂

  31. I do believe you said it all. So many businesses and industries are re-aligning themselves to cater to a health-conscious consumer public, which is wonderful.

    On the vegan/integrated menu tip – in How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman points out that most people do eat a lot of vegetarian food on a regular basis without even realizing it, which to me is a case of semantics and the desire we all have to label everything. As a vegan, I don’t ever see myself as any different from my friends, I just don’t eat all the same things they do, and it’s nice to be able to have shared experiences at eateries that cater to all.

  32. I am so frequently asked by readers who are planning visits to So Cal for Vegan/Veg restaurant options, or high raw vegan restaurants.

    well, this is a beach town, not NYC the epicenter of foodgasmic choices (you NY’ers are spoiled w/ the Candles and Pure’s of the world but I digress!) and I always tell people, well, really, I have no “perfect” recommendation for you. Other than naturally high veggie places like Indian or Thai or ethnic cuisine, or simply ordering creatively and utilizing what one can from a menu in a “regular” restaurant, that’s about as good as my tips get b/c there really isn’t much to choose from that’s truly vegan or high raw vegan. And what is that way is NOT Pure Wine. Think beach diner, at best.

    Anyway love this:
    “Simply having eateries that are either all veg or omni-centric only compounds the idea that veganism is exotic and fringe”
    Amen Gena. Another gem of a post!


  33. I agree with you Gena. The Pump has been a nice compromise between me and my coworkers when it comes to ordering lunch out together. I’ve had some scrumptious smoothies from there.

  34. i love your optimism! there are lots of vegan eateries but thats just it – they’re labeled VEGAN EATERIES. awesome to find places that have both vegan and omni options. hooray!

    ps. your description about the slush pile made me smile…

  35. I agree with you that what seems like something small is actually a big step. I think a lot of us forget that hummus is an exotic, strange food to most Americans. Anything that makes vegan foods less “weird” to the general population is good.

  36. Wow The Pump sounds awesome!! Kinda reminds me of how downtown in FiDi there’s a place called JustSalad that I ordered takeout lunch from once, and I was blown away that they had butternut squash and wheatberries. I’m so excited that there’s also a The Pump on Pine St, just a couple of blocks away from my workplace, and one in Union Sq, right near my college dorm this fall! I will definitely be paying this place a visit soon!

  37. That place sounds too good to be true! So happy that they changed their ways 😉 HAHA. Everything there sounds and likes heavenly! Thanks for sharing!

  38. Wow, love the shift in the pump towards real food…I remember seeing it when I was a magazine intern but switched careers before entering the assistant world! The 8 oz juices are amazing…I agree about 16oz being too much sometimes.

    As a college vegetarian cross country runner…coaches and fellow teammates were always concerned about my protein intake but really…carbs is really most important…and overall I KNOW that I can get adequate protein from whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and even veggies now.

  39. Wow! I never ate there because of, well, lots of the reasons you listed. But now that I know they have pressed juices and lots of other options I need to stop in and try it out. Thank you for this post, I never would have known since I don’t walk by The Pump so much anymore!

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