Sharing Vegan Tastes with Sage Vegan Bistro’s Mollie Engelhart

July 28, 2014

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We are so honored to have with us today, Mollie Engelhart, she is the owner and chef and founder of Sage Vegan. She is also my friend, and my brother and I are business partners with her. We’ve invested in her amazing food products. Welcome to Green is Good, Mollie. Mollie Engelhart: Hi, thank you for having me. John Shegerian: Mollie, we’re so excited to have you on today. I just have to get that disclaimer out there because I never want people to think otherwise of why we have people on and things of that such. But you are one of the premier restaurateurs in the United States. Sage has taken it by storm in Los Angeles, in Silver Lake and now on Culver City. And, it also is a vegan restaurant but before we get into talking about how you founded these two great restaurants and also your delicious ice cream brand KindKreme. I’d like you to share your journey. How’d you even get to this place. What made you want to go into the restaurant business and become a vegan? Mollie Engelhart: I was raised vegan. I was vegan from the womb. So, there is no, where I came to a big epiphany about the animals and then stopped eating meat. When I was 12 I tried meat because I was like “Oh, it’s like destroying the environment and we’re getting cancer. We’re getting heart disease, all this stuff I knew. And we’re abusing animals by the millions. So, I was like this stuff is going to taste like… I thought the heavens were going to open up and gold was going to rain down on me when I tasted it. Because I knew the impact before I had even tasted it. And I was like “it’s kinda chewy and I’m good on it. And, I never ate it again. So, I did try meat once when I was twelve. I tried a little tiny bite of chicken and little tiny bite of a hamburger. But I was in a lot of things before I was in the restaurant business. I went to Cal art for film making right out of high school. So that’s how I got to California from New York. And while I was in college for film making my neighbor was in A and R at Sony and he hired me as his personal assistant while I was still at college. I went full time working for Max Stuss who’s now at desk GM but at the time was at Sony and I was his assistant for a brief period of time, a year or so, and then I opened my own recording studio in North Hollywood. I did that and was fairly successful at it for several years and then the music industry had a crash between pro tools and downloading the whole recording industry changed. People could record music for much less money and people were not selling albums the way they use to because people could steal music from the Internet for free. Because my business was still fairly new, five years old, I couldn’t weather that storm. We had so much expected so I sold everything. I sold my house and paid off all my debts. I was back down to zero. I was professionally a poet for several years. So, I was on HBO def poetry, toured the country. Was at every college from podunk nowhere to Harvard performing poetry. And, that was cool but that was not much money. Then I grew medical marijuana briefly for some years. And then my best friend Uni, and business partner got pregnant. She was an actress and she was like, “I want something more steady.” And I was like, well I don’t want to tour any more and it was lonely on the road. You do one hour of poetry and then you’re by yourself for 24 hours. So, we opened the ice cream shop and that pretty much very fast brings us to today. The ice cream shop led into Sage. John Shegerian: And, the ice cream shop is called KindKreme, right? Mollie Engelhart: Yes. KindKreme, vegan ice cream. And, it’s an all vegan, with the exception of honey, ice cream parlor and we have multiple different sweeteners. Not just honey but agave, and coconut palm sugar and maple syrup options and with the exception of the soft serve it’s all raw and it’s all organic. John Shegerian: Unbelievable. Mollie Engelhart: We started with that and that quickly led to opening the first store in Studio City and then from Studio City we opened one in Pasadena. And the same time we were opening one in Pasadena the opportunity for Sage happened. And I guess what really happened with Sage was that these guys were opening a restaurant and they asked me if I wanted to buy the restaurant opportunity. They had opened a restaurant and it failed. They asked me if I wanted to buy the restaurant opportunity, I said “yes.” They said that they have to give the chief a chance to buy it out. And I said, “ Oh sure, go ahead.” And then I didn’t hear from them for like along time. In the mean time I was opening the store in Pasadena and I was doing a movie that went to Sundance with Mark Webber. So I had like spent a bunch of money in that time. So then they called back and I was like “Oh, I don’t have the cash any more to buy your restaurant, sorry.” And they called me back like a week later and they were like “Okay, we have another idea. What if we open a vegan restaurant and you take the front area and do KindKreme because you’re already so popular and will be a draw to our restaurant. Because we already tried one vegan restaurant and it failed and they were going to try with a different chief. So, we were like it’s such a good neighborhood I couldn’t say no. And everybody was mad. My husband at the time, everybody was like, “Are you crazy? You’re just through making a movie, we don’t have any money.” Everybody was mad. My gut tells me we have to do this. We can’t not do it. And, very quickly I realized these guys, bless their hearts they’re from Palestine and they’re into making money, but didn’t know anything about vegan food. And they were sneaking like croissants from Costco in and I was like “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa”. I started to see what was happening. So, I started policing and never wanted to leave the restaurant because I was scared that that restaurant was going to impact on my name. So, finally I approached them, I’m working like every day. I’m so freaked out. Teaching you guys what to do, I’m needing to buy into the restaurant and I need to be part of it because I’m working as hard for your restaurant as I am for the ice cream portion of the situation. So, I bought in. I eventually bought them out. Right after I bought in they felt secure enough to go to Palestine on vacation for three months and I took care of everything. In the time the chief quit that he had hired. He was like, you have to redo the menu. It’s my intellectual property. So, pretty much over night I redid the menu at Sage, my own menu. By the time they had gotten back, food cost was down about 14% and sales were up 22%. So, there was no arguing that I had changed everything. And, I eventually bought them out and owned it outright. And that’s how that all happened. John Shegerian: And, then you made that a huge success down in Silver Lake and then you opened up Culver City last year. Mollie Engelhart: Yes, we opened Culver City in September of last year. I was very excited. I at first said no and I didn’t think it was a good location, but as I researched that area I started to think it was. And a different area of the plaza opened up and we were able to have a beer garden and it just all started to fall together. So, I decided to do that location and I did the offering to people like you and we raised the money in I think ten days or something like that. Very quickly. Almost all, with the except of Woody Harrelson and Jason Mraz, who are the sweetest most supportive friends a girl could have, all the other investments are customers. And, Woody and Jason are customers too but I knew them prior to them being customers. But all the other investors are customers, I feel honored by that because it means people came and ate the food and believe in the product. And invested in me. John Shegerian: It’s the absolute truth. That’s was worked for my brother and I. For our listeners out there, we have Mollie Englehart, she’s the owner, chief and she’s the visionary behind Sage Vegan. You can check out all Mollie’s great food at www.sageveganbistro.com. And, if you’re in Los Angeles go to one of her two locations. It’s amazing. Of course I’m bias, but her food is some of the best in the whole United States, vegan or non-vegan. It’s some of the best food. Mollie, you took it into a whole new direction when you opened up Culver City. You had the vision for the organic bar and beer garden, which not a lot of vegan restaurants have done. Why did you have that vision and how’s it worked out so far? Mollie Engelhart: I had the vision because I’m not a didactic vegan. I’m not like everybody should be vegan. Everybody should do whatever is best for them and remember that we are all roommates on a rock flying through space with limited resources. But it’s not for me to tell other people how to live but if we know that eating less meat and dairy as a numbers game is what has to happen. Not like everybody has to be vegan, but we have to eat less meat and dairy as culture, as a society, as a planet, not just up here like people in China. Everywhere has to do. It has to be delicious, it has to be accessible and it has to be fun because nobody wants to yell that. Nobody wants to be told what to do. So, I wanted to create a place that lets say you’re vegan and you want to have your birthday party. You have 25 people come out and you guys have cocktails and buffalo cauliflower, hot wings and nachos, and potato salad if that’s what you want. Everything. and then you’re friends say that place was great and the drinks were great and I’m going to go back there. I have a 80% non-veg customer base. Which means 80% of my customers would normally be eating meat in that meal and they’re not because they’re eating at my restaurant. That is actually my goal is to have more regular folks not eat meat because it’s a numbers game. I’m not trying to sell it to the vegans, the vegans are going to come. I’m trying to sell it to everyone else that’s been turned off to it, thinks its not possible, thinks it’s hard. And so if I’m going to do something I want it to be organic, I want it to have the least impact on the planet. So then I said lets go all organic cocktails and all of our beers are almost all organic or unique sustainable practices by the brewery. So, some of our beers aren’t certified organic but the brewery are like all wind or solar power or all their spent hops goes to feed cattle. There’s a lot of other ways the breweries are doing other stuff. And, all our hard alcohol is certified organic with the exception of bourbon, which is just certified non-GMO. John Shegerian: Got it, got it. So, the organic bar and beer garden has turned out to be, every time I’m there, they seem to be a wild success for you as a business venture. Mollie Engelhart: Yeah, I mean it’s really great. It’s not like if I owned a regular restaurant; it’s not the 30-40% alcohol sales like other restaurants. But that’s okay because people that are eating this way are not getting smashed with their meal. They’re having a glass of wine; they’re having a cocktail. But it is a great success in that it’s doing well financially and that people are coming and gathering with their friends. Every night we have a reservation of 20 or for 15 we even had to make up a special way to do, because we had a reservation for 60 and how to deal with these large parties. People love to congregate there, in that space and that is a real success. John Shegerian: You know, Mollie, of course I’ve gotten to know you over the last couple of years and you’ve become a friend and a good friend at that. And, I know this is really your DNA and culture. Sustainability and environment and as you say you’re a vegan from the womb, you know, talk a little bit about how you are DNA related with regards to how you operate your business, how things are locally grown. How you’re very involved, politically speaking, non-GMO and other things that you really believe in and everything you’re doing and how you really try to push the movement forward every way you can. Mollie Engelhart: Well, I’m super anti-GMO because I actually think that maybe, I don’t know for sure, maybe the motivation behind GMO way back in the beginning, had integrity and it was to feed more people and whatever like that. It is lost its way. It is not a good idea and really to know what we’re eating. We don’t even have the opportunity because there haven’t even been labeling passed. Unless we’re constantly educating ourselves on the 11 foods that are genetically modified and now it’s 13 foods, now salmon is genetically modified, and we have to consistently updating yourself on what could be genetically modified and then only buy those for organically certified sources because that’s our only option really. I don’t want people to feel scared that they’re eating rat DNA on their lettuce, I want them to feel secure, so I only buy my produce from small and local farmers that are certified organic or some of them are too small, financially, to be certified organic and they are growing specifically for me. I even have this one family, it’s a Latino family, they came to me and said they wanted to grown for me. You know what I would need for you to grow for me. They were like, we don’t even know about this. So, we spent time to teach them about how to farm differently and I have purchased seed for them so they knew where to buy non-GMO tomato seeds, non-GMO zucchini seeds and now they grow for farmers markets and all this other stuff besides me. They’re growing all organic and all organic practices and they’re one of my big contributors as far as produce goes every week. My father’s a huge contributor. My dad’s taking it to the next level. He’s a biodynamic farmers. He went a step further than organic. My dad brings produce for Cafe Gratitude and Sage every single Wednesday night. He has a huge refrigerator van and he comes down, him and my two uncles take turns who’s going to go and bring the produce down. It’s nice I get to see my family and they bring fresh produce and we’re constantly educating ourselves about what’s next and what’s important for the environment. Right now my family’s main passion is composting. Since we’ve realized about the exact amount of carbon that’s in the air that’s out of whack with the normal of the ups and downs is missing out of the top 8 inches of topsoil. So, it’s really clear that the only way that we can put that back in is to create healthy soil and they only way to create healthy soil is composting. John Shegerian: Wow! Mollie we’re down the last three minutes or so. Can you share with our listeners, you know so much about sustainability and where things are today, because this is how you live. Can you share three simple things, solutions for our listeners out there that they can do right now that aren’t that expensive that can make a difference? Mollie Engelhart: Yeah, it’s sometimes so overwhelming as to what to do. There are some small things you can do that make a huge difference. The first thing I always tell people it hygiene products. The soap that you use for your laundry, the soap you use on your body because A: that is taking direct contact with you as a human and your body and health. But it’s also going directly down into the ocean. We’re washing our clothes and everything. I always recommend, there’s some very inexpensive eco brands out there, even Costco now has some environmentally friendly brands and stuff like that. I always tell people the plastic bag things the plastic thing is gnarly. Just don’t buy plastic. Just commit to no more plastic water bottles. I’m going to bring my own water bottle and I’m not going use plastic bags. Just that is a huge amount of plastic that in one year you stop using. I would also say just food. People think it’s so hard to eat organic but at least within the bigger cities, Trader Joes has made it really easy to buy inexpensive organic food, farmers markets are a great place to get inexpensive organic foods. What we spray on our food is super important and it really matters and that is also just getting washed off and is going directly into the ocean. Cutting back on meat and dairy is super important. It’s a numbers game. John Shegerian: Mollie, where are you going to be 10 years from now? Where are you going to take you and your restaurant chain in the next 10 years? What’s your vision? We have one minute left and I want our listeners to hear what your vision is for the future. Mollie Engelhart: I’d like to open a few more Sages the way that it is with the beer garden. John Shegerian: Sure. Mollie Engelhart: In prominent cities, in Los Angeles. And, I would like to open a smaller casual concept that fits in 1,500 square feet, inexpensive to open that I can put everywhere so that more people can have access to healthy organic food. John Shegerian: Well, I hope that happens, Mollie, because more people need access to healthy organic food and your food is some of the best in the whole nation. For our listeners out there that want to learn about Mollie and her great food it’s www.sageveganbistro.com Thank you Mollie for being a visionary culinary and sustainability superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good. Mollie Engelhart: Thank you so much, John.