The door opens, allowing a blast of chilly air inside. No matter—there’s a smile at the Sticky Fingers Bakery counter. A line snakes in front of a glowing pastry case: pies, muffins and those famous moist and perfectly dense cupcakes. The dining area, outfitted with a 1950s fridge and retro furniture, is bustling with plaid-clad twenty-somethings, bleary-eyed students and families with children. Classic comfort food dishes appear on Formica tables: open-faced sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, French toast. What’s the difference between this scene and any other diner, besides the fact that it doesn’t have a beehive-sporting waitress named Maude?

Everything, from the BLT to those sausages, is vegan.

Inside Sticky Fingers Bakery in Columbia Heights

Inside Sticky Fingers Bakery in Columbia Heights

Chef and owner Doron Petersan steps out of the kitchen, eager to discuss her newest creation: challah French toast. She wasn’t always up for a culinary challenge of this sort. Growing up in Queens and upstate New York, all she knew food-wise was the quintessential Italian/Jewish deli-bakery. While working at a veterinary center, however, all of that changed. Unsurprisingly, during her stint there she became a vegetarian and then a vegan “in order to leave the agro-industrial complex,” she says. Interested in the intellectual aspects of a healthful vegan lifestyle, she moved to DC to get a degree at the University of Maryland in dietetics and took a job as a nutritionist.

Petersan knew there was more to the food world once she discovered how to cook high-quality food using only vegan ingredients. Becoming a vegan “really opened up my palate to a world of new ingredients, new flavors and new ideas.” She chewed over the concept of opening a restaurant so that others could also taste the rainbow of vegan possibilities.

Retro decor is part of the charm at Sticky Fingers Bakery.

Retro decor is part of the charm at Sticky Fingers Bakery.

Yet from school and research, she also knew that changing one’s behavior is difficult. “You can’t just tell people to eat better, not to eat so much meat, to change what they and their families and cultures have always done. Environment and food availability is a huge factor in what we end up eating.”

She began with the basics. What do people love? “Cookies are the vegan gateway drug,” she says with a sly grin.And then, who can turn down a warm, gooey, homemade blueberry pie?

Sticky Fingers Bakery began by being warm, welcoming and non-confrontational. Now a community staple, it has expanded beyond that glass case of baked goods. Petersan has proudly seen DC grow into a preeminent food city. She’s received support from the large and growing vegetarian communities in the area, while her Cupcake Wars victory further drove home the popularity and deliciousness of vegan fare.

Petersan was thrilled to see that some of her childhood staples, like rugelach and baklava, were already animal-free. “Baking,” she says, “isn’t just ingredients, but how you put them together.” But it’s in the savory menu where things get interesting: the BLT is made with tempeh bacon; the soul-warming grilled cheese with Daiya vegan cheese. The shop uses locally sourced ingredients when possible.

Since recipes lack meat and dairy, everything’s pareve. While the restaurant isn’t certified kosher, she’s received short-term certification for events like the JCC gala and the Jewish film festival. For the holidays, there will be kugel and matzah ball soup and a mash-up of Italian-Jewish deli with latkes and lasagnas, while the abovementioned challah French toast is Petersan’s current bun in the oven.

Sticky Fingers Bakery's famous cupcakes

Sticky Fingers Bakery’s famous cupcakes

With the vegan food movement growing, next summer Sticky Fingers will open a sister spot with a new name on H Street NE. It will have a huge kitchen and will focus on the savory. Syrups, sodas and sauces will be made in-house.

Back in the Columbia Heights location, ceramic mugs of coffee with coconut creamer clatter on saucers, steam emanates from fluffy biscuits and a tuna melt is marveled at for its main ingredient: chickpeas. It’s a homey, welcoming, community space first, all of which happens to be vegan.

Sticky Fingers Bakery, 202-299-9700, 1370 Park Road, NW, Washington, DC, Monday-Thursday 8 am-8 pm, Friday 8 am-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-8 pm. Not certified kosher.