Vegetarian Action

So You Want to Open a Vegan Restaurant…

By Jim Dunn

Have you ever dreamed of owning your own vegan restaurant? Many vegans would probably admit to such flights of fancy, but for Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson, just dreaming about it wasn't enough. Through a series of baby steps—a vitamin store and juice bar, then a small health foods café—they beat a path to 1307 Third Avenue, where they opened the Candle Café in New York City.

Bart and Joy's success didn't result only from 7-day work weeks and a dose of good luck. They were also seriously committed to doing right by animals, treating the earth so that future generations might want to live here, and providing only health-supporting food to their customers. It was by moving beyond the realm of “strictly business” that they were able to tap into the energy needed to create a masterpiece restaurant.

That's not to say that good business sense didn't count. The Candle Café is a thriving establishment with 35 employees, including six chefs and cooks as well as a first class baker. Many of the Café's culinary staff came up through the ranks, while others have been trained at The Natural Gourmet cooking school in New York City. Bart notes that a busy kitchen is a real pressure cooker, and with the Café serving 10,000 meals a month, keeping key people requires good pay and good management.

Staffing isn't the only challenge for a mid-sized vegan restaurant. Keeping the kitchen stocked with fresh, organic, seasonal food is no small task. Last year's gross at the Café was over $2 million, which translates into huge quantities of tofu, kale, portobellos, and soy ice cream. But, because they don't get the discounts offered to large commercial food operations, they have to be particularly careful that they buy smart.

The Café's customer base varies from meat-oriented tourists to high profile vegetarian and vegan celebrities, but the bread and butter (whoops—soy margarine) customers are the devotees from both the neighborhood and the rest of the country who make a point of stopping at the Café whenever possible. So, while there is no shortage of mainstream customers who would not usually eat vegan food, for many regulars the Candle Café experience reflects a commitment to something larger than just getting something to eat.

Of course, a quick glance at the menu tells you that eating an earth-, animal-, and human-friendly diet does not mean you have to suffer. You could start with a Carrot/Apple Snap cocktail, and then move on to Asian Dumplings with ginger-soy sauce for an appetizer. Squeeze in a crunchy sprout salad with a ginger dressing, and then, the Tempeh Lasagna or the Macrobiotic Life Platter. If you have room for dessert, consider the Decadent Chocolate Cake.

I asked Bart if he had any advice for people who want to open a vegan or vegetarian restaurant. He suggests they work as an apprentice in someone else's successful vegan/vegetarian restaurant for three to five years. He also recommends learning as much about the chef's job as possible. In addition, I asked what he would have done differently if he were starting over. His answer -- buy quality, buy durability. He and Joy have been astonished at the beating that chairs, tables, dishes, floors, walls, and bathrooms take. They have put as much money into replacements and renovations since the restaurant opened as they did to build it originally.

For everything the Candle Café offers the individual vegan diner, the management and staff never forget that they are part of a larger community. Neighborhood outreach in schools, temples, churches, and community centers has introduced people to good healthy foods that they would never have tried on their own. As Joy put it, the food provides a “healthy addiction” that draws people to the restaurant.

Clearly, Bart and Joy have discovered that making a success of an upscale vegan restaurant while satisfying their personal goal of protecting the earth and all its inhabitants is very doable. Sure, they get a big kick out of seeing Woody Harrelson, John McEnroe, or Gloria Steinem walk in the door, but the real turn-on is when one of their non-vegetarian customers comes back again and again because they love the food and feel at home.

For more information, check out the restaurant's website.

Jim Dunn, a long-time VRG volunteer, recently staffed a booth for the Group at the National Restaurant Association conference.