Vegan Comfort Food in a Battle Against Cancer: The Inspiring Story of Three Girls Vegan Creamery
Vegans rub shoulders with omnivores, eagerly lining up for opening time at a tiny restaurant in Guilford, CT. They all know what Oprah, The Washington Post, and NPR have reported: Three Girls Vegan Creamery makes insanely delicious food. Italian comfort food that is, starring their own plant-based “meats” and artisan vegan cheeses.
Most patrons are oblivious to the fascinating back story of Three Girls. “We really should be named ‘Four Girls Vegan Creamery’ says the twinkly, blue-eyed owner, Tracy Alexander, 60, who calls herself everyone’s “Vegan Nonni”. Some stories begin with love. This story begins with love and mozzarella.
The fourth girl is Tracy’s mother, Theresa Picone. In 2011, she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age 73. Doctors gave her 10 months to live. Tracy and her sister, Kristi, a nurse practitioner, found this diagnosis “unacceptable" and began frantically researching ways that might prolong their mother’s life. They quickly discovered studies connecting animal products with cancer tumor cell growth, and the benefits of a plant-based diet. The problem, Tracy explains, was that her whole family is “VERY Italian”, and accustomed to meals centered around beloved recipes that relied heavily on processed sausages, meats, pasta, and cheeses.
Convincing her mother to adopt a plant-based diet was a steep challenge, but Tracy, co-owner of a marketing company, was determined and created a PowerPoint presentation to “pitch” her Mom. It was so compelling that her mother agreed to go totally vegan, participate in clinical trials, and forgo traditional chemo and radiation. In a gesture of solidarity, Tracy’s entire extended family vowed to join Theresa in her fight by also eating only plants.
Tracy had won her first battle, but making vegan Italian food to satisfy her tribe’s taste buds would become a personal war. Despite her role as commander of this operation, Tracy had no way of predicting the effect a plant-based diet would have on her own health. She was pre-diabetic and on medications to treat Grave’s disease, but her focus was on her mom’s health crisis, and inventing delicious plant-based comfort foods that would, as Tracy puts it, “Feel like a hug”.
The first order of business? “The Mozzarella.” After 9 months of failed attempts, Tracy, whose only training came from her Neapolitan grandmothers, succeeded in creating a recipe for vegan mozzarella that looked, tasted and melted like real mozzarella. Teaming up with eldest daughter Brittany Guerra, 35, Three Girls’ cheese maestro, recipes for vegan ricotta and parmesan cheeses followed.
They developed their signature party-platter cheeses: fermented and aged mini cashew wheels encrusted with one of three toppings, maple bacon and herbs; black peppercorns; or cranberry, pumpkin seed, pistachio, and fresh thyme.
Meanwhile, Tracy’s mother was feeling great on her new plant-based diet, adding Essiac tea and yoga into her routine. Whenever Mom expressed a craving for a meat or cheese-laden Italian family favorite, Tracy would experiment “vegan-izing” the dish, recording her recipe in an 800-page notebook, now full. Newly vegan family members appreciated the taste of Tracy’s cooking as well as the health results. Tracy’s brother-in-law, Glenn, lost 40 pounds.
Within a few months, Tracy lost 30 pounds. Her blood sugar numbers normalized, reversing her pre-diabetes diagnosis. Her cholesterol levels dropped, allowing her to cease cholesterol medication. Her energy levels improved. Tracy’s high-strung tendency shifted into calm mode. She just felt better.
One night in October of 2016, in a flurry of entrepreneurial inspiration, Tracy created a logo and website for the fledgling brand, Three Girls Vegan Creamery, printing labels and business cards from her home printer. The next morning, she bought plastic containers from local Chinese restaurants, packaged up some Mozzarella balls and cashew wheels, slapped on a Three Girls’ label and pitched a local health food store, Food Works in Guilford, CT. They placed an order for a case of each. The girls hit the ground running. Tracy’s youngest daughter, Taylor Pitts, 31, took charge of the brand’s digital needs, managing the website and social media, while Tracy and Brittany focused on the actual cheese-making.
Three Girls’ began selling their vegan cheeses at the City Seed Farmer’s Market in Wooster Square, an upscale neighborhood near Yale University in New Haven, CT. As more and more wholesalers and consumers fell in love with the product, demand quickly exceeded supply.
Three Girls’ outgrew Tracy’s home kitchen, and operations relocated to brother-in-law Glenn’s pizza parlor during his “off” hours – after closing time and on Mondays. The available hours weren’t enough to keep pace with the orders now flooding in from across Connecticut and beyond. After Glenn added a ‘vegan mozzarella pizza’ to his menu, America Vegan Society Magazine profiled it in the article “Vegan Pizza in Your Town” and demand sky-rocketed out of control. Three Girls' needed their own kitchen space - and Pronto!
In 2017, Three Girls leased a 540 square foot, former dry cleaner space, in Guilford, CT. The roomier kitchen helped them meet wholesale and online orders, the bulk of their business. Tracy decided to open just one day a week for retail sales, on Sundays. Three Girls’ opened to the public for the first time on July 30th, 2017 and over 1,000 customers showed up, depleting the store’s inventory within hours. Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube blew up with images and videos of the vegan cheeses, salamis, sausages, meatballs, lasagna, porchetta roast, mac and cheese balls, subs, sandwiches, and desserts.
Word spread and patrons were driving hours, crossing state lines to the little shop, hell-bent on snatching up the famous meats and cheeses before they sold out each Sunday. Stories in The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune followed, and within the year, demand was exceeding supply, and Three Girls’ made plans to scale up. Again. An Indiegogo campaign in 2018 raised over $38,000 for equipment and gut-renovations on a newly leased 1,200 square foot space.
In March 2019, Three Girls Vegan Creamery moved to its current home: a sparkling commercial kitchen and storefront with café seating in Guilford, CT. Frank Sinatra tunes fill the air of this cheery little spot, sunlight bouncing off the white subway tiles into glass cases stuffed with clear take-out containers of the shop’s most popular items.
"The Mac and Cheese Balls topped with Vegan Bacon always sell out first", gently warns the shop’s cheese maestro, Brittany, from behind the counter. Tracy, dressed head-to-toe in black and dusted with flour, glides in and out of the kitchen, warmly greeting patrons, asking where they’re from, her laugh lilting above the clamor. This “Vegan Nonni” clearly loves seeing and feeding, her family of guests.
“Our meats are glorified breads,” Tracy confesses. Her recipe book is a vault, holding proprietary combinations of beets, mushrooms, basmati rice, panko, onions, garlic, olive tapenade, fennel and spices. Tracy’s secret ingredient, “vital wheat gluten” imparts the realistic “fooled-ya!” textures that has set the brand apart. Patrons swear they cannot taste a difference between her plant-based meats and the real McCoy. Tracy uses only organic, non-GMO ingredients, avoiding soy and tofu.
Pressed for details on exactly which plants become vegan meats, Tracy shares just a few of her secret ingredients:
- “Smoked Apple Bacon”: dried coconut chips, apples, tamari, smoked paprika, and maple syrup.
- “Clam Strips”: breaded and fried oyster mushrooms.
- “Tuna-Free Tuna”: soaked sunflower seeds, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, celery, and parsley.
- “Crab Cakes”: artichoke hearts and seaweed.
- “Lobster Bisque”: lobster mushrooms.
- “Steak”: a base of black beans and sautéed onions, mushrooms and garlic.
- “BBQ Ribs”: a combination of butter beans and apples.
Tracy’s recipes took years to develop and she constantly tweaks them, attributing her success to “always being curious”. Three Girls artisan cheeses have a cult following: They’re made with cashew or almond nut milks, fermented and cultured with organic quinoa probiotic that Brittany concocts herself. Goat cheeses rounds are artfully rolled in colorful edible flowers and herbs, and can be ordered as tiered “wedding cakes”. Three Girls sell Goji Berry Decorated Goudas, Brie En Croute, Marinated Mozzarella Pearls, Mozzarella ‘di bufala’ Pearls, Grated Romano Grated Cheese, Parmesan Crisps and Almond Ricotta. Patrons on YouTube confess to eating the cannoli Dip with a spoon. In their car. On the way home.
Vegan condiments and sauces include Horseradish Dill Mayo, Cashew Alfredo Sauce, Dragon Sauce, Nacho Cheese Sauce, Pesto Sauce, and Ricotta. There’s even Vegan Butter.
Entrees change seasonally and include Peach & Prosciutto Apizza, Heirloom Caprese Salad, Guacamole Hamburgers, Corn Beef & Cabbage, Fried Chicken, Buffalo Cauliflower, New Haven Style White Clam Apizza, “Pizzagaina” Italian Easter Pie, Quiche Lorraine, Chicken Florentine, Biscuits and Gravy, Chicken Pot Pie, Stuffed Artichokes, Turkey Roast with Apple Sage Sausage Stuffing.
Crowd favorites among both vegans and carnivores are the hearty Italian sandwiches – Chicken Parmesan with Eggplant, Fresh Mozzarella, and Basil; Italian Sausage on Pesto Fried Dough; Meatball Parmesan Subs; and the Italian-Rockstar-of-All-Sandwiches, “Mozzarella en Carrozza”.
Dessert-lovers will find vegan Chocolate Covered Donuts; Layer Cakes; Pumpkin Cheesecake with Caramel and Roasted Pecans; Apple Cinnamon Turnovers with Fresh Raspberry Sauce and cannolis. There are always, always cannolis.
Only three and a half years since launch and the status is more go than quo. Website orders are booming. The restaurant’s crushing it. Their new cooking class, “Vegan Curious” has a waitlist. And Tracy is healthy – and happier – than ever. Her Grave’s Disease completely disappeared within 18 months on a plant-based diet, allowing her to ditch a thyroid prescription and beta-blockers. No heart palpitations, hand-shaking, insomnia.
Tracy’s mom, Theresa, lived actively a full seven years after her initial lung cancer diagnosis, making it to her 80th birthday. During those years, she not only welcomed two additional great-grandchildren into the world but also witnessed the birth of her daughter’s incredible labor of love, Three Girls Vegan Creamery. Bellissimo!