Opinion: The Claremont Village has great food. Fact: There are at least two of almost everything — two boba places, two ramen restaurants, two sushi stops and at least three ice cream and pizza places. But as of right now, there is only one place that sells vegan and healthy fast-food, and that place is Pepo Melo.
Keith Strenger, the owner of Pepo Melo, is a produce broker for melons. “Being in the fresh produce industry, I always wondered why there weren’t more options that dealt with fresh cut fruit,” he said. After seeing frozen, pressed and blended fruit products, he came up with the idea of serving fresh cut fruit in its own natural way.
Strenger noticed that most stores that sell açai or smoothie bowls only offer blueberries, bananas, strawberries and the occasional kiwi as their toppings. For Pepo Melo, Strenger wanted far more options; currently they serve around 17 different fruits. By spring, he expects at least 20 fruit options. Pepo Melo’s fruits are sourced from all over the world, including local farms, Guatemala, Costa Rica and South Africa.
Because of the wide variety of fruits, I was curious about waste management. Strenger said that all leftover fruits would be used for “fruitade,” a drink comparable to agua fresca but with no added sugar. The flavors for fruitades change daily depending on what kind of fruit is leftover. Recent flavors include Lemon Papaya Basil and Cucumber Mint — a perfect refreshment when the weather gets warm.
“Pepo” is the scientific word for the flesh of a melon, and “melo” is an abbreviated form of melon. Pepo Melo thus not only has a nice ring to it, but represents the roots of Strenger’s career as a melon broker.
Strenger admitted that Pepo Melo did not open at an ideal time because of the cold weather. But the week after winter break, it quadrupled in business. He attributed the store’s success to Instagram and word of mouth. “Once somebody takes a photo and shows it to everyone, it’s just a snowball effect from there,” he said.
Strenger believes that business will only increase as the weather gets warmer.
“I’m providing something people will crave when the weather hits 80 and above,” he said. Because of the large presence of students at the 5Cs, Pepo Melo now takes Claremont Cash.
Although the majority of Pepo Melo products are vegan, Strenger himself is not vegan. Before Pepo Melo opened, Strenger hired a plant-based private chef for four months to help design recipes and introduce him to vegan and healthy ingredients.
The private chef invented all the signature bowls and came up with creative names such as Call Me Big Papaya (derived from the song Call Me Big Papa), which consists of a base of coconut yogurt with bananas, kiwis, papaya, coriander, chia pudding and raw caramel drizzle. All ingredients are fresh and packed with protein and vitamins.
Strenger used his new knowledge to create his own recipes because he wanted more options for everyone, one of which is overnight oats soaked in hemp milk with goji berries. The goji berries acted a substitute for honey, making it 100 percent vegan.
Strenger discovered that the goji berries actually added more sweetness to the oats than honey did. “We are learning on our own how to be creative using natural ingredients without adding anything else,” he said. “Why add honey when you can add goji berries, which has its own health benefits?”
I tried his overnight oats and was surprised at the sweetness and creaminess of it. The oats had absorbed all the hemp milk, making them soft and fragrant. Biting down into the soaked goji berries added in pops of sweetness.
The toppings bar was fascinating because there were so many options: different types of mixed nuts, granola, chia puddings, seeds, powders and much more. There were even toppings that I’ve never heard of, such as spirulina, a powder made from algae.
“When you have all these options, it’s hard to say no. I have tried a bowl with everything to see if the toppings go well together. The end result was delicious,” Strenger said.
I ended up trying the bee pollen as well, which had an interesting texture and flavor. It was slightly bitter, but had a noticeable floral taste. I also had the Purely Elizabeth granola, which had a lovely cinnamon flavor. For those who like a bit of crunch, try the hemp seeds or the cacao nibs.
The sorbets at Pepo Melo are also a must-order. I sampled three flavors: Blue Majik, charcoal and pitaya (dragon fruit). Blue Majik had a beautiful light blue color and tasted light with a hint of pineapple and coconut. At first, I was skeptical about charcoal because of the color, and the fact that it’s…charcoal. It ended up being my favorite flavor. It was just the right amount of sweet and creamy, and I never would have guessed that it was made from activated residues of organic matter. Pitaya, a gorgeous magenta color, was bursting with fruity undertones.
To my delight, Pepo Melo serves pineapple Dole Whip on the weekends. It tastes just how you would expect: sweet, tart and refreshing.
The best part of Pepo Melo is that it is customizable. Although there is a menu of suggested combinations, you can pick and choose from the multitude of toppings, allowing you to come up with your own flavor combination.
“There’s nothing that doesn’t compliment another topping,” Strenger said.
Stephanie Du SC’ 21 is a biology major. Her hobbies include cooking, baking, traveling and eating all kinds of foods.