The Raw BarEdible San Francisco | November 2005
Café Gratitude in San Francisco, on Harrison Street between Potrero and the Mission, could well be Cheers for the raw food set. Like the bar on TV, the restaurant has an unobtrusive exterior, distinguished primarily by the muted sign over the door. But once you pass through the double doors, you join a lively crowd of friendly folks chatting away amidst bopping jazz music. Belly up to the sizeable dark wood bar and drown your sorrows in an organic beer, or a raw chocolate and almond milk smoothie. After you’ve come a few times, everybody may well know your name.
It’s fitting that the inspiration for Café Gratitude came to its owners, Matthew and Terces Engelhart, when they were farming in Maui, as neighbors and friends of Woody Harrelson. Their farm is part of an agricultural community that relies only on solar power, and grows much of its own food. Many of the residents, Harrelson included, prefer their harvested organic produce uncooked.
“I knew about raw food since the seventies,” Matthew says, “but I always saw it as my option of last resort, my ace in the hole if I ever got a disease, or some terminal diagnosis. But one day I just thought, well, why wait?”
The Café serves only vegan dishes, about 90% of which are made of raw or living foods. The vegan diet excludes all animal products, including milk, eggs, and cheese. The raw diet excludes any food cooked above 110 degrees, on the theory that any additional heat destroys necessary enzymes in the food.
“Terces is a food alchemist,” Matthew says of his wife, who designs the menu. “It doesn’t matter what it is, she finds a way to put it together so that it works, it tastes great. She just has that sixth sense.”
Alchemist is a fitting term: raw, vegan dishes require inventive combinations and substitutions to make them satisfying. The menu is broad, offering small starters, salads and main plates, smoothies and juices, and a sizeable dessert menu. The dishes have personal affirmations for titles, a mildly distracting tic but a lengthy source of positive adjectives for anyone short on them. “I Am Flourishing” is an agreeable assemblage of almond and sesame ‘falafels’ with hummus, tapenade, cucumber tzatziki and tomatoes on a bed of greens. “I Am Passionate” is an unpredictably tasty live pizza of a crispy sprouted buckwheat and sunflower seed crust and cashew nut ‘ricotta,’ sundried tomatoes and brazil nut ‘parmesan.’ The vegetables, all organic, are fresh and flavorful. Those nut cheeses are scrumptious, surprisingly good mimics of the real thing. The ‘falafel’ is dehydrated in very low-temperature dehydrating ovens, and is more like a savory cracker. By and large, the seasonings are balanced and refreshing, signs of a gifted chef at work.
Terces’ desserts rely spectacularly on fruit pastes and nut purees for body and richness. “I Am Perfect,” her pecan pie, is as tooth-stickingly gooey as the usual, with dates and maple syrup taking the place of corn syrup and eggs. You can hand crank your own frozen nut milk ice creams at the table: “I Am Delighted,” from coconut milk, or “I Am Brave,” organic raw chocolate chip.
“I used to run a wholesale bakery,” Terces says. “I would feel so guilty. My desserts were delicious, but so rich, filled with butter, sugar, flour. It feels wonderful to feed people amazing desserts with whole foods that are wonderful for them.”
Raw foodists, the Engelharts included, rave about the energy and glow they get from the diet. But the Engelharts are careful not to proselytize in their Café.
“It’s an invitation, its not a dogma,” Terces explains. “It’s basically just an opportunity for people to incorporate more vegetables and fruits into their diet.”
Not everything on the menu is raw. They offer soups and bowls of warm grains, like “I Am Warm,” miso soup with marinated vegetables, and “I Am Graceful,” steamed quinoa with pesto, tomatoes and sprouts. (They also poke fun at their own aphorisms; the sign on the bathroom says “I Am The Bathroom,” and the bowls of silverware on the bar are marked “I Am Spoons,” and “I Am Forks and Knives.”)
The raw menu was an afterthought when couple first imagined the Café. What they really wanted was a place for people to play their boardgame, a self-help tool they’d designed called “The Abounding River.” The game encourages its participants to be more aware and more grateful for abundance in their lives.
Abundance “is just another way to access the divine, the spirit,” Engelhart explains. “The Buddhists have meditation, the Sufis have ecstatic love, we have abundance.”
Copies of their boardgame are laminated onto the surfaces of the tables, where communal dining is encouraged. Baskets with the game’s cards, and pencils for taking notes, are also furnished. The game rules are up on one wall. The menu, which is also a mural on the wall, shares the same illustrations and designs as the game.
What’s more, the waitstaff undergo training and a daily clearing to make sure they are present to their own abundance during their shifts. The end result is a friendly, relaxed crew who try to help customers relax as well.
“I like to say that this is a sacred space cloaked as a restaurant,” Matthew says. “People notice. We’ve had policemen and firemen walk by here and remark on it, ‘something’s different about this place.’”
Engelhart may be a natural at creating communities through products. In the late 1980’s, he and his former wife Jeanne Engelhart founded Flax Clothing out of a barnyard in upstate New York. They offered a line of linen clothes for men and women, featuring relaxed cuts, solid construction and fun detailing, all machine washable and dryable.
For a time, their clothing tags also included affirmational messages like “I Am Open And Receptive To All People,” similar to the ones on the Café menu. The company promoted the notion that wearing their comfortable, natural clothes would help make the world a better place by fostering comfort and inner peace within its customers. The clothes drew such a devoted following that fans started calling themselves Flaxistas, and even formed an online forum in which to praise and to swap the clothes (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Flax/). Jeanne and Matthew have since divorced, and sold the company a few years ago for a tidy fortune. They remain friends, and Terces still favors Flax clothes.
This fall Matthew and Terces are expanding their new business into two additional locations, one in Berkeley and another in San Francisco. They are opening a 5,000 square foot central kitchen facility that will run 24 hours a day to supply the cafes, with an eye towards future expansion later on. The central kitchen will handle the prep – the chopping, dehydrating, cheese and milk-making — to maintain consistency between locations. Individual locations will handle daily specials. To help offset costs, customers can buy Gratitude Builder Cards, prepaid food cards, for $1,000, to which the Café will pitch in an additional 25%.
Even in the face of success, the two realize their brand of cafe can seem a bit much. “People definitely can come in here with a lot of skepticism and suspicion,” Terces laughs. “But I think that’s great, because then they can look around and realize, OK, maybe this is possible.”
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