The Power of Quality Food with Candle Café’s Joy Pierson & Bart Potenza

June 24, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and we’re so excited and lucky today to have on the show Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza, the owners of Candle Café and Candle 79 here in New York City. Welcome to Green is Good. JOY PIERSON: Thank you. BART POTENZA: Good morning, good morning. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Good morning, and Bart and Joy, here’s just a shameless plug and a little truth in advertising. I’m one of your greatest fans and also I love your wonderful food, so I just want to say that to my audience right now. In terms of vegan food and plant-based food in America, no place is better than Candle Café and Candle 79, so thank you. I’m just honored to have both of you on because both of you are just leaders in this whole plant-based and vegan food industry. JOY PIERSON: Thank you. BART POTENZA: Well, thank you. That was a great show. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Bart and Joy, before we get to talking a little bit about what’s going on at Candle 79 and Candle Café right now and all the great things you’re up to, share with our listeners a little bit of the journey, because you guys are truly pioneers in what you did, and how you’ve gotten to where you are today. Both of you, take a little time and share your singular and then your together journey on how you got here. JOY PIERSON: OK, I’m going to start. I’m a nutritionist by training, and I was a customer. Bart had a 500-square foot restaurant, and I was there every day. I was the biggest fan, and it made me feel so good when I changed my diet from eating a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet, and I had incredible results, but I would go to Bart’s restaurant every day. I am a nutritionist, so I had clients, so I just felt an incredible turnaround. My hair, my skin, my mental clarity, and it was by eating Bart’s food every day that made me feel so good that it was like I saw a great movie and I couldn’t wait to tell more people about how I was feeling and to start eating this way. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Bart, how did you get going in this whole thing? BART POTENZA: Well, I must say, I was going to save it for the end of the show, but in 11 days I’ll be 76 years old, so I’m the poster boy of the industry, and I go back 35 years to a small juice bar that I purchased. I was working for the Health Nuts chain in New York City, and I had a wonderful man who was a great chef, and we started what we called the first Healthy Candle, which manifested into the Candle Café and then Candle 79 and now Candle Café West. We purchased what was called Sonny’s Health Food Store in, it’s hard to imagine, 1984. So, it’s almost its 30th year now. It was the landmark store where people like Ann Lindberg and Mrs. Thomas Dewey used to have their juices, as well as the great ladies of the Upper East Side. I coined the expression, “Women in limousines love rice and beans.” It was in the biggest zip code in the city, and they would come up, seriously, and the guy would come in and pick up the rice and beans. They knew it was good for them, and it was good food. The reason it was named Candle, by the way, the people who owned it previously used to light candles throughout the whole place, and there was something about that that was inspiring, you know, like a blessing. We like to think of it as a glow. Then Joy came onboard in 1987 in that same location with the beautiful warm heart that she has and her nutritional experience brought her onboard. Great friend, great co-worker, eventually developed into a relationship, and here we are together 25 years married, in business together, and together 24-7. Wow. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. You know, that’s amazing because, you know, you truly are both not only entrepreneurs in the food industry and in terms of where the world is going right now in terms of eating and feeling better, but you’re also pioneers in terms of husband and wife teams entrepreneurs, and both are great stories. Today we’re going to focus a little bit on this whole trend of veganism and what’s going on. When you have people like Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney and all these great thought leaders and political leaders and artists talking about eating right and juicing now, obviously you guys were onto something long before, so truly the pioneers. Talk about this a little bit. I go to your restaurant all the time, both West and East and Café and 79, and they’re always packed and there are always wonderful neighborhood people, but also celebrities in there. Who is in there? You guys know your customers; you’re in there all the time. Is it just for vegans and vegetarians, or is it way beyond that now? JOY PIERSON: Way beyond that. BART POTENZA: Well, we reached the point where we are literally feeding the fourth generation, John, of clients and friends. We’ll have a given table be the grandparents, the children, and then the other children. But, you know, such a broad stroke, let’s face it, the trend is our friend. When I started almost 30 years ago, we were a bit of an anomaly; we weren’t out there with this much press. But I don’t think a day goes by that there isn’t something in the media about eating this way. JOY PIERSON: And then also the other thing that I think is so interesting is 90% of our customers are not vegetarian, so they just love the quality of the food, they love the taste of the food, the flavor profiles, what we call the international spicing and flavorings, and they really just love the quality, like it’s organic, it’s picked within 24 hours. We’ve got great farmers we’ve been working with for a long time, and people know good food. So, I think that’s fascinating that we’re not just feeding vegetarians. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And also, is it part of this whole new local food trend? Is a lot of the food that you source locally-based? JOY PIERSON: Yes. BART POTENZA: Oh, yes, especially this time of year now. In the winter, of course, we have to pull it in from California and Florida, but for now, believe it or not, one advantage of climate change, whether you’re into that, is there’s a longer growing season now. Our local farmers used to cut off around October or November, but they’re still bringing stuff in through December now. I’m talking New York State, of course, Long Island, New Jersey, the local area here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, not only are your restaurants full, but every time I’ve purchased your great cookbooks, the Candle Café and the Candle 79 cookbooks, what is the uptake in those? Are people really enjoying them? Are people buying them more and starting to use them more at home than ever before? JOY PIERSON: Definitely. I love the stories like, “I made Thanksgiving out of the cookbook,” “My husband’s birthday and I made a celebration out of the book.” We’re getting a lot of wonderful response that people are out of the state, or even those in the state who can’t get to us, can make our food at home. I think that’s the best. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you think you’re going to do more books in the future, or what’s in store in terms of the book way for you? JOY PIERSON: Definitely more books. I love writing books, and we have one that’s hopefully coming out soon, but we’re still working on it. We just finished our proposal. We’re very excited about that. I love to be able to show people how beautiful vegan food can be, and how easy and delicious. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, if you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza on the line. They’re the co-founders of Candle Café, Candle 79, and we’re on talking about the whole trend of eating well and juicing and vegan food and plant-based food. Listen, you know, one of the most exciting days is when I was in Whole Foods maybe six months ago, and I saw your new line of frozen food in Whole Foods, and I know people can find that at candlecafegoodies.com. Talk a little bit about this new frozen food line that you both created here. JOY PIERSON: The frozen food line is so that it was accessible. What I wanted to do is make plant-based food accessible for everybody. This line is delicious. I don’t know if you’ve had it yet, John, but it’s the ravioli with the red sauce, which is my favorite, the mac and cheese with no dairy, a ginger miso stir-fry, and a seitan piccada. It’s available at Whole Foods and it’s been out for about two years now, but I love that it would be available for people all over the country. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And is that available in all the Whole Foods across America? JOY PIERSON: It’s national, yeah, all across America. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, I’ve tried the food, and it’s just amazing. Is that going to extend? Is that line of foods going to keep extending at Whole Foods? JOY PIERSON: We have our fingers crossed for extensions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it. BART POTENZA: They’re into their second year of an exclusive contract. When that’s up, we might be able to get into other stores as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s amazing. Talk a little bit about what’s going on with regards to the Candle chain. You know, you opened up this beautiful location on the West Side of New York City. You’ve got the wonderful Candle Café on the Upper East Side, and the great Candle 79. Talk a little bit about the other organizations you work with in New York that connect you in regards to your ultimate missions. JOY PIERSON: I think one of the great things about the frozen food line is that on the box we talk about the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary and their great work, and we donate some of the profits to Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society, so we’re very excited about those organizations that we share the same mission and passion. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, you know, when I’m sitting in your restaurants, there are some of the greatest people that are in the news are sitting in your restaurants and they’re eating. I don’t want to blow anybody’s cover or anything like that, but it is sometimes so fun to see the people that come in and enjoy your great food and are just like everybody else in the neighborhood. Can you share some of the folks that come in all the time and are your regular customers? BART POTENZA: Well, a quick one I have to laugh about, because Joy told me about two weeks ago Anthony Bourdain came in with his family, and he’s all over CNN now eating everything from monkey brains to pig sows, and he knew he had to come in and get his life a little more in balance. Can you imagine? You know that man, right? He eats everything around the world. But, you know, when Joy told me we would be doing this with you this morning, through the years we’ve had everyone in from Michio Kushi to Colin Campbell down in our place. Sometimes it’s Joy and I talking as we are now, of course, but it’s the voices of thousands of people coming through our heads who’ve embraced what we do, embraced the lifestyle and the sharing that goes on, literally and figuratively, is amazing. So when you say you see a table of this or that, tell the Paul McCartney story about the time he sang Happy Birthday to a customer. JOY PIERSON: It was somebody’s 30th birthday party, and she was sitting at the table next to his, and he wanted to sing Happy Birthday to her. She screamed like it was 1962. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh my gosh! JOY PIERSON: Quite a thrill, right? BART POTENZA: Well, the good thing about that, of course, is they do spread the word on the given day, you know, the celebrity people, obviously, or the media a lot too. We’ll wait for them to talk about it on late night. They send each other in. Our dear friend Cicely Tyson, 88 years old, star on Broadway right now, up for a Tony Award. 88 years old, more energy than some 40-year-olds we see. JOY PIERSON: As you know, the food makes you feel good. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. And then like Bart said at the top of the show, the trend is your friend. I mean, this is where everyone’s going. Bart, you talked about being 76. I’m 50, but both my children are vegan and all the young people that work for us at our company are now starting. When they come to town to do business meetings and stuff, we bring them to your restaurants, and they are shocked. They love your food. I mean, they go back to California, we get them your cookbooks, and they bring it back to their wives and their spouses and their children, and they just fall in love with this whole way of eating. So, I have to tell you, both of you are changing lives. Everyone you touch you’re influencing, and it’s amazing that you got into this 25 or 35 years ago, before the media, before it was cool to be vegan or to be juicing and things of that such. It’s just incredible to me. BART POTENZA: Well, like Joy said earlier, we both felt so good eating the food, we never thought about anything else but that. JOY PIERSON: It’s just like your commitment. We couldn’t stop telling people and introducing people to the food. There’s nothing like a chimichurri, as you know. JOHN SHEGERIAN: But, you know, you both are inspiring to me. Whenever I see you, whenever I come into your place and all the great people that you hire, is a testimony to you and what you’ve created. Who inspires both of you? Because you guys are the pioneers. You’re the vegan and plant-based immigrants out there. You’re allowing the next generations behind you to be the natives now and to really make this part of their culture and DNA. Who are your inspirations? How do you guys get out of bed every morning and go do what you do? JOY PIERSON: You know, I think what you just said though John, is the staff motivates me and inspires me, their commitment to what we do, their commitment to veganism and sharing it with people and to people’s health and the wellbeing of the planet, you know, by adapting the vegan lifestyle we decrease our carbon footprint by 25%. I’m inspired by Colin Campbell too. I just took his class this summer, and it was extraordinarily inspiring. It gave the scientific data for why we do what we do. I love the staff; I love how the chefs inspire me with their creative and delicious dishes; the farmers inspire me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And Bart, how about you? BART POTENZA: Well, what we often say is when you feel good, which happily the three of us do right now, you want to do more with your life. You’re out there more. There’s no hiding out when you’re feeling good and vital and energized. Joy’s other major commitment is to this coalition in New York City feeding the schoolchildren. She was part of the first vegetarian school in the city. JOY PIERSON: P.S. 244. It went all vegetarian. It was announced this week by the Department of Education. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And are you working with them, Joy? JOY PIERSON: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about that. Share that information because we need more of that across America. Share with our listeners. This show is heard coast to coast and around the world. JOY PIERSON: And this is what is so inspiring too, the kids are so inspiring. I’m the co-Board Chair of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, and we work with kids all over, and we feed them plant-based options. We’re actually in the kitchens in the cafeterias working with the chefs, and working with our chefs, creating plant-based options for kids. It’s been extraordinary. I had a mother who jumped on the table in Harlem, turned her body around, said I lost 15 lbs. and my cholesterol is lower, my diabetes went away. Her asthma is gone, all because she adapted the program because her kid was in a program with us. And it’s amazing, and the kids really love the food. It’s reeducating kids about what’s good for them and reeducating their palates and what tastes delicious, and teaching them how to be empowered and cook. So, I’m totally passionate about that and to see the change in kids and their families is extraordinary. BART POTENZA: Very exciting. JOY PIERSON: It’s mostly in lower-income neighborhoods. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s such important work because that’s the next generation behind us, and we can’t continue to poison them, so that is just incredible. Hopefully other school systems across America pick up this, Joy, and are able to replicate the paradigm that you’re creating here in New York City. BART POTENZA: Exactly. JOY PIERSON: That is the key. BART POTENZA: Exactly. JOY PIERSON: We’ve got to give kids their birthright and opportunity to eat healthy. BART POTENZA: And as you, John, know, and your listeners too, the conditions of health and wellbeing in our country, between obesity and diabetes and everything else, we’re paying those bills, directly or indirectly, for other people. So the more people that are healthy and feel good, all these healthcare issues I’m surprised no one ever brings up preventive medicine after all these talks about Obamacare and all that stuff. People are not taking care of themselves, and when you come down to it, the things we’ve created, we hear 5% of the country is vegetarian or flexitarian. It’s still a small amount. I wish I could say I would live to 200 years old by being a vegan, then everyone would want to eat what we eat, you know? We all go bye-bye some day, but it’s a quality of life thing. What do we say, honey? It’s harder to change people’s food habits than their religion or politics, that’s how ingrained the idea of what people eat and how they eat is in people’s society. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so true. Hey, you know, Bart, we’re down the last three minutes or so, but I just want to ask you. Both of you are such leaders in so many ways, that I just want to share another story with our listeners, another leadership role that you’ve played. Talk a little bit about what you’ve done with your restaurants and the connection with native energy and your commitment to being one of the first restaurants to recycle your cooking oils and other things in your restaurants. BART POTENZA: Joy, you can handle that one. JOY PIERSON: Well, Bart actually met someone named Michael Ashman many, many years ago. We became the first Green Restaurant Association-certified green restaurant, and Bart was instrumental. He even met with the Mario Batali group, and he’s also been a great advocate for greening of restaurants and given his time, as he does. At our restaurant, we do composting, the cooking oil gets picked up and put in vehicles as fuel, and we do as much as we can and our managers are really inspired and they fill out all this incredible paperwork and do everything from buying paints to tiles and everything we do, we always think about the green ramifications. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Bart and Joy, we’re down to the last two minutes. Talk about the future. Talk about the future of Candle, of the Candle future, and where you both want to take it. BART POTENZA: Well, quickly, we have a very ambitious group along with Joy and myself, we have at least 10 other what I’ll call major players in the organization, from chefs to Chief Financial Officers. They’re young and they’re vital, and they would like to have more Candles. We get requests for that from the West Coast, downtown New York, and across the country. Joy, you have another take on that as well. JOY PIERSON: I just think that continuing to offer people great-tasting, wonderful plant-based foods and to figure out how to best spread the mission far and wide, because I want everyone to have the opportunity that I had to feel so great by eating a different diet, and I was highly educated. I was in nutrition school when I made my change. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Well, I just want to say this to both of you. I am so honored to have both of you on Green is Good today. This was a special morning for me because spreading this word and spreading the word with people that have really been doing it for so long and have been some of the greatest pioneers in the industry is totally an honor, and I’m humbled to have you both on. You’re always both welcome to come back on Green is Good at any time to spread the word about your new cookbooks or a growing of your line of delicious food. For our listeners out there right now, please learn more about Bart and Joy’s great products and great food line at candlecafe.com, candle79.com, or candlecafegoodies.com, which talks about all the great food they have at Whole Foods. Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza, you’re both inspirational pioneers and leaders, and truly living proof that green is good. JOY PIERSON: Green is good. BART POTENZA: Thank you. JOY PIERSON: Thank you.