Vegan Dining with a Side of Self-Affirmation

Simply asking for tofu won't cut it at San Francisco's Cafe Gratitude. The meals at the vegan raw-food restaurant have self-affirming titles like "I am lusciously awake" and "I am peaceful." Patrons must use these names to order their food. Andrea Kissack of member station KQED reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEIN BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In San Francisco, there's a vegan restaurant that's just as interested in its customers' souls as it is in their stomachs. Well, that might seem a little bit much to swallow, but it's actually been a hit, turning some diners into true believers. From member station KQED Andrea Kissack has more.

Ms. ANDREA KISSACK (Reporter, KQED): Stepping inside the doors of Café Gratitude it's like another world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was overwhelmed with tears. I mean, it's the belief of how I would like the world to be and it's just overwhelming.

Ms. KISSACK: A happier world, a stranger world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello. You are most accepting. Please enjoy. Bon appetit.

Ms. KISSACK: And definitely a much more pleasant world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's amazing. It's so precious and sincere and it's just wonderful.

Ms. KISSACK: At Café Gratitude even the most cynical patron would have a hard time holding onto their edge because ordering off the self-affirming menu is an exercise in self-love. You want a Caesar salad? You have to ask for I am dazzling, because that's the name of the dish. Have a hankering for live toast with sprouted almond sesame seed hummus? Well, that entrée is called I am flourishing. And hey, you can't just say I'll have the hummus, that's cheating. There's one guy here tonight, Fred Gage. He's doing it the right way.

Mr. FRED GAGE (Café Gratitude Customer): I ordered the I am passionate live pizza.

Ms. KISSACK: Hmm, passionate, that might be stretching it a bit. Fred just got off the plane from Iowa and landed smack dab in the middle of a California stereotype.

Mr. GAGE: My son, he's the one that talked me into ordering them like this. It's all new to me.

Ms. KISSACK: If you find you're pushing your comfort zone just a little bit to compliment yourself out loud to the waiter, just wait until you get to hear the whole thing read back to you when the waiter brings your meal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And who had the thankful soup? Great, you are thankful, enjoy. And you are elated? And you are abundant. Enjoy.

Mr. MATTHEW ENGLEHART (Owner, Café Gratitude): I am amazing is lemon meringue pie, it's my current favorite.

Ms. KISSACK: Owner Matthew Englehart and his wife Terces are self-proclaimed transformation junkies. In addition to running the café, they hold workshops out of their house. They've invented a board game, written a book, and own an organic farm in Maui.

Mr. ENGLEHART: We actually say it's an experiment in sacred commerce. It's a commercial venture, you walk in and you buy something but you have an experience or we want to elicit an experience of the sacred, of wholeness, of oneness, of love.

Ms. KISSACK: And of mariachi music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KISSACK: A mariachi band starts to play for the Saturday afternoon crowd. This restaurant is tucked into the heart of the Hispanic Mission district. Diversity is what the café tries to celebrate, but unlike the clientele the food is a little more monotonous. Café Gratitude is vegan, so no dairy, eggs, or meat. It's organic. And it's mostly live cuisine, meaning that food hasn't been cooked above a certain temperature, which is supposed to lock in its nutrients and be really, really good for you.

Mr. PETE SHEA(ph) (Café Gratitude Customer): We try to work bacon into every meal if possible.

Ms. KISSACK: Although still a bacon fan, regular Pete Shea says he was surprised that he actually liked the food here.

Mr. SHEA: I think the flavor is what kind of gets people over the hump of, you know, I'm eating grass and seeds.

Ms. KISSACK: It might be tempting to dismiss all of this self-affirmation stuff as earnest California hokeyness, but it is also earnest California capitalism. The place is always packed and Englehart is now opening two more Café Gratitudes in the Bay Area.

Ms. AMANDA BERNE (Food Critic, San Francisco Chronicle): I have no idea why it's such a success.

Ms. KISSACK: San Francisco Chronicle food critic Amanda Berne.

Ms. BERNE: I think that we're a lot more accepting to these kind of places. It's a little crunchy granola, it's a little out there, it's a little space cadet, but, you know, we like it because the food's fine and it's healthy and it's fresh and it's got a fun vibe.

Ms. KISSACK: Oh, yeah. It's lively and fun. And just so you know not all vegans take their rolled oats and bean sprouts so seriously. If you make your way to the back of the restaurant in fact, you can find the affirmation on the door that says I am the restroom. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Kissack in San Francisco.

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