by Steven Sanchez
In the state of California, when you think of the havens that are considered vegan, you would imagine cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Rarely would you think of the Central Valley. And by reputation, deservedly so. We are the agricultural capitol of the world, especially when it comes to meat and dairy. You can’t go a square mile in this area and not see a farm of some sort.
Even with all the food and produce that we provide for the country, it doesn’t mean that we make the best decisions with it. The Central Valley has struggled with healthy living as we’ve had to deal with rising rates of obesity, heart disease, and other ailments. It’s not just a local struggle but a national one as well. The country has several problems when it comes health issues. If you want to know what they are then look at the Planet Vegan food truck article I wrote a year ago.
I don’t need to get specific, but the proof is out there, and when you research the subject, it’s been scientifically proven that many health problems and high mortality rates that American citizens are struggling with are caused by meat and dairy intake. What do you expect to happen when you are consuming flesh of an animal and drinking the food source meant for its offspring? But yet we continue to do it, and the Central Valley is no different. Not only does the Valley have to confront unhealthy eating, but a bad climate, and now a pandemic. But there is a way that we can give ourselves a better chance for a healthier and productive existence. It’s an answer that most people don’t want to hear, but it’s been scientifically proven that a plant-based diet can be the key to a better way of life. And no one has believed in that concept more strongly than the owner of the Love Café, the Central Valley’s first and, based on our research, the only all-vegan restaurant, Tricia Louise Tracy.
Located in the hills of Oakhurst, Tricia has been vegan for 16 years, saw that her neck of the woods needed a plant-based restaurant, and the rest is history. For the last few years the restaurant has been serving the Valley with non-meat and non-dairy goodies that’ll make your mouth water. It’s become a family business. The food is so delicious that you will forget that you’re not eating an animal. They’ve got it all ranging from burgers, sandwiches, burritos, fries, breakfast items, smoothies, dessert, and the list goes on. They’ve definitely been major contributors to the growing rise of popularity in veganism in this area. Once the pandemic hit, they struggled like everybody else, which led them to close in the winter, but plan to reopen in the spring better and stronger than ever.
Being a vegan and putting a plant-based restaurant in an area that isn’t known for veganism and has certain attitudes towards it wasn’t easy. But Tricia had a responsibility, was strong in her convictions, and it has paid off. Kings River Life had the privilege to talk with this local trailblazer as she elaborates on her vegan journey, bringing it to the Valley, its rising popularity, and discusses her plans for the restaurant when they reopen in spring.
KRL: You opened the very first all-vegan restaurant in Madera County California, but, based on my research, I think that you’re the only dine-in and take out vegan restaurant in the Central Valley. What’s it like knowing you’re one of the very few in the area to specialize in such a thing? What was people’s response at first when you decided to open up an all-vegan restaurant and what has been their response now?
TLT: I was actually thrilled to announce that I was the first all-vegan, all organic, no waste restaurant in all of Madera County. Knowing there was nowhere for locals or visitors to dine with the options I offered was one of the reasons I chose to go back to work and open Love Cafe. The visitors/tourists that are traveling through Oakhurst to visit Yosemite have always been extremely pleased to find us, often thanking us for being here, sharing stories about how over the years of visiting the area, they had never had anywhere to dine. Their gratitude was received well and boosted our morale to continue further with our goals to hopefully spread the message of healthy food options as well as waste control to our local community.
KRL: You’ve been vegan for 16 years and I’ve been for the past four years, as is my family. Being a vegan in the Central Valley isn’t an easy thing. We are still kind of new to it but you’re a veteran. What was it like being a vegan back then before it became popular, or entered the American lexicon? Did you take on that lifestyle by yourself and how did you deal with people who didn’t understand it?
TLT: Being a vegan for over 16 years now has had its challenges for sure. However, they were never challenges for me. They were for my friends and some family members. A decade ago the word vegan wasn’t a household word as it is today. It seems now that the original stigma that the word vegan carried as an extremist or radical diet is now being recognized as a healthier diet. Many animal lovers and environmentalists are vegan as well. I like to remind people that vegan is just another option, another choice we get to make. If someone feels that they have to be one or the other it makes it harder for them to even attempt to try vegan options. I have had friends say they don’t come to the cafe because they are not vegan. After polling our customers, we found that over 60% of them are not vegan either. That Love Cafe is just another restaurant that offers an all-vegan menu. Just like going to Chinese, or Mexican, I tell them it’s just another type of dining experience for them to try to see what it’s like. In the 16 years of being vegan, my friends and family have altered their own ways of eating when I visit, and have really enjoyed some of the new foods they have learned how to cook, and continued to eat even when I’m not visiting. I am very happy knowing that a handful of friends and family have gone 100% vegan. If I had an influence on this development, that would make everything I do mean something.
KRL: The Central Valley isn’t particularly known for veganism, or healthy eating. This is the dairy and meat capitol of the world, but fresh produce doesn’t equate to good health. This area sure can use a good dose of veganism to increase health standards and practices. In your opinion, what will it take for this area to convert to that way of life?
TLT: I believe with every day more and more people are hearing about the health benefits, and the environmental impact. It would be wonderful if the Valley had some seminars, or better yet a vegan festival. They have them all over the world, and it creates a place with lots of fun food and information.
KRL: My sister and I are involved in the vegan community here and we started to notice an increase in participation and interest in food trucks that cater to the plant-based community. How do you feel about its rise in popularity? When you see the Valley converting to veganism do you give yourself credit for leading that way of living?
TLT: The fact that there is an increase of interest, and other vegan-type restaurants popping up throughout the Valley shows that the message is spreading. I would give myself credit along with the other businesses and people who have all taken the lead in sharing their vegan diets with their friends and families. All the vegans that keep spreading their own stories, and their experiences are what the vegan platform is all about. I have always called it a ripple. From Love Cafe, I always hoped that the delicious food, health tips, and healthy energy that customers experience leaves with them and they share their thoughts about their visit. All vegans do it. All vegans get the credit.
KRL: Your restaurant is located in Oakhurst on the way to Yosemite. Out of all the places in the area that you could’ve chosen to have a vegan restaurant why there?
TLT: We have lived in Oakhurst for over 30 years and we love our community. It started as a passion project to create a vegan restaurant in a place where I lived. Going back to work after 20 years wasn’t easy, but my passion for the vegan movement gave me the courage I needed. We plan to possibly sell the business as we near our goal of retirement. I am hoping to pass the baton to someone who is just as passionate as I am.
KRL: My family and I drive up to your establishment whenever we get the chance. We don’t mind the drive, it’s very serene, but it is a lengthy one especially for Fresno and Clovis residents. Have you thought about expanding to other areas in the Valley to raise more awareness about veganism?
TLT: We have thought about opening a second location in Fresno many times. We are confident it would be a huge success, especially financially. However, we love to live more remotely, and are not too keen on being in Fresno or any big town or city for long. So, knowing it would mean we would be away from the mountains for extended amounts of time, it was not an option for us.
KRL: Your menu is astounding. My personal favorite is the meatball sandwich and the Thai fries. Absolutely delicious. But I’ve always wondered in your line of work, how do you go about creating a menu in the plant-based dining service industry? There have been so many alternate versions of food recently, like meat, egg, and dairy replacements, how do you figure out what your specialty items are, and who do you cater to when it comes to barbecue, deserts, etc.?
TLT: When selecting menu items, it was easy. I chose items that were found on most any restaurant menu around America. I love the challenge of making any menu item but veganizing it. Offering gluten-free items was the hardest challenge. Most gluten-free breads are not vegan, or other substitutes. So, with careful attention to details we worked to find the best organic, vegan, and sometimes gluten-free options.
KRL: Obviously healthy living is more than what you eat even though it’s important. What you put into your body is essential, but what other contributions do you do for the community in terms of inspiring people to live a healthy life besides what you do at the restaurant?
TLT: I try to live by example of how I choose to spend my free time. I believe we are more than what we eat, or what we do, or say. It’s a blend of all of those things that matter. Staying active physically is as important as staying active in your community. Taking time to help a friend or neighbor in need is as important as caring for your own family. Being vocal about what is healthy, about what things impact our world are good ways to stay current and speak from a place of compassion and care.
KRL: Studies have shown that going vegan could not only lower your risk of severe Covid-19, it could lower the risk of future pandemics, and because of it there’s been an increase in plant-based food purchases. What’s your reaction when you see these figures?
TLT: I try not to be smug, and that is hard. Rather, I like reading these news stories in hopes that the message about viruses, climate, and health are read and perhaps then encourages someone who would otherwise never consider a change.
KRL: What’s your favorite vegan cuisine?
TLT: My favorite cuisine is Ethiopian food. Funny that that is the one type of food I have never tried to cook. Perhaps because I have never had to try to alter it to vegan. My family and I really enjoy dining at Fasika in Fresno. The owner, Charles, is a dear friend and his vegan dishes are so delicious!
KRL: You closed your restaurant during the winter because of the virus but for the majority of the time you were open. What was it like running a restaurant during a pandemic?
TLT: During that time, it was stressful. Having myself and an employee both considered high risk made it a daily worry, and kept us all practicing the safety measures closely. It was working well and our customers got the hang of the new formalities we had to implement. Ordering online, phone orders, pick up only. It was a struggle, but worth it to stay open and continue offering the food our community became accustomed to having access to. With the winter weather changes it became impossible for us to continue as a take-out only. Our outside dining area is for warmer weather for sure.
KRL: The whole year of 2020 was a tough one and not just with the pandemic but the riots, civil unrest, police brutality, the administration—the list goes on. Most establishments would shy away from being vocal about world issues, but on your social media you were upfront about it. You talked about BLM, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, voting, certain things that businesses would think would scare customers away, but not you.
TLT: I knew when I was going back to work, that I would not ever waver from my views. I feel strongly that I try not to stand on one side or the other of any issues, rather that I stand on a platform that is based on love, compassion, and kindness. If any issue does not stem from, or gravitate towards, those three platforms, then I am not interested nor do I wish to apply my focus. So, with that said, I am more than happy to use my voice about the issues that are passed from love, compassion, and kindness. As for the business part of it, if I were to offend, or scare customers away by these three adjectives, then perhaps they never were my customers.
KRL: As I mentioned, you closed during the winter but announced you will be coming back during the spring. What can we expect to see from Love Café once you reopen?
TLT: We hope to reopen in April. We will offer our same menu, with a few new changes. More flowers! More music! More dancing!
KRL: For those who are considering going vegan, what’s your step-by-step advice for them?
TLT: For someone considering going vegan I remind them to be kind to themselves. Remember we have all eaten a certain way for our whole lives. And any diet is hard at first. Whether to lose weight, remove sugars, be gluten-free, it’s difficult to remove anything from our lives that we have become accustomed to, especially if we authentically enjoy it!
Keep trying, if you slip up, no big deal, just keep trying. Oh, and YouTube videos, and TikTok are two great places to become inspired by the vegan community.