The other day, fellow blogger Evelyn of Vegan Simplified messaged me about the devastating news … Matthew and Terces Engelhart, owners of the insanely popular Los Angeles vegan restaurants, Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre, were killing animals at their farm for profit. To add to the heartbreak and horror, their daughter and owner of Sage Organic Vegan Bistro sources from the very same farm that kills animals: Be Love Farm.
Naturally, their vegan fans, myself included, were in an uproar. Eco racecar driver and Discovery's #1 eco athlete, Leilani Münter, tweeted at all three vegan establishments: “When BeLoveFarm decided to start slaughtering animals for profit, you set this reaction in motion.”
Before I go on, I will admit that I’ve had to rewrite this post several times now as I read more about this story online. It has been a roller coaster of emotions: I went from feeling betrayed and infuriated, to taking a moderate stance on it, to being utterly disgusted by the owners’ long history of questionable business practices and ethics. Apparently, they are no strangers to controversy.
One Side of the Issue: Not All Vegan Restaurants are Owned by Vegans
When I first heard the news, I immediately made up my mind to boycott all three establishments. Then I began researching more information about this story, reading people’s opposing views on the issue. At that point my anger began to subside as I could understand other people's points of view.
On one hand, as Fat Gay Vegan insightfully pointed out, not all owners or CEOs of vegan restaurants are vegans/vegetarians themselves. In that same vein, there are also popular vegan food brands whose non-vegan investors are profiting from them, and “spend said profits on animal product consumption.”
In some aspect, it’s like a means to an end: That in order for vegan companies to thrive, we have to accept that not all of them source from or affiliate with 100% vegan businesses. Do we, the vegan community, continue to support these non-vegan owned/operated vegan establishments, since boycotting them could potentially cause these businesses to suffer and reduce our vegan options?
As hard as it may be to admit, these types of restaurants are still serving a purpose by fulfilling the need for delicious vegan dining—and thereby appealing to non-vegans. They’re also showing the general industry the viability of vegan businesses, as there is a strong demand for them.
One of Fat Gay Vegan’s readers, Paul Lambert, posted a comment that sums up this conflicting issue perfectly and raises valid points:
“Ideally, vegan/vegetarian restaurateurs would themselves be vegan/vegetarian, but it’s just not a realistic goal. I’d rather have them promoting vegan/veggie dining options than diminish an already comparatively tiny list of places for us. And who among us hasn’t at some point eaten the limited offerings at some restaurant or another that isn’t vegan/veggie at all, but make do with whatever we can manage to order on the menu that isn’t tainted with animal products? Why would we turn out someone who is already leaps and bounds above the alternative? It’s cutting off our nose to spite our face. If we punish those vegan/veggie eateries with non vegan/vegetarian owners/management/employees.”
Heart of the Matter: The Sense of Betrayal
On the other hand, the real issue here is the feeling of betrayal by these establishments who kept their new stance ambiguous. Given that Terces Engelhart’s blog post about their transition to killing animals on their farm is only coming to light now within the vegan community, even though it was posted in February 2015, it seems like they intentionally kept their “transition” under the radar. Perhaps they did this because: (1) They knew it could potentially dissuade vegans from becoming new patrons, and (2) It could damage their relationship with loyal vegan fans.
The name, “Be Love Farm” is extremely misleading in and of itself. It gives you the sense that they’re all about promoting all-encompassing love for people, animals and the planet—not the smokescreen that it turns out to be (even if the industrial farming practices may not exist at their farms, killing is killing--no unconditional love there). It’s a little too reminiscent of the way agribusinesses portray dairy cows blissfully grazing in wide-open green pastures, instead of the dark reality of them hooked up to milking machines while their babies are taken away from them to be slaughtered for veal or raised as dairy cows.
Jason Wrobel said it best on his blog:
“And, ironically, the name ‘Be Love Farm’ implies what, exactly? Be loving to whom? Humans, exclusively? Are you catering only to the desires and appetites of human beings while slaughtering animals for their consumption? Where is the love for the animals in this process? Furthermore, the term ‘humane slaughter’ is the biggest oxymoron ever. Is there a loving way to stick a knife in a cow’s throat? … Sounds like what ‘Be Love’ really means in this context is: ‘Be Conditionally Affectionate in a Subversive Way when it Suits Your Preferences, Appetites and Profit Margins.’”
What makes this situation so upsetting is that the owners were vegetarian for 40 years, and as Jason points out, they built their vegan business on a “specific ethical culture” and then suddenly chose “to generate a profit from the sale of animal products.”
The Many Layers of the Engelharts’ Questionable Past
I wish the story ended there with just two fair sides to the issue. However, Leilani Münter also tweeted about this blog post by Mary Cummins, an animal advocate who seems to have spent a great deal of time researching this story (thank you, Mary!). Her blog post is more like a comprehensive exposé on the ugly details about the Engelharts’ past. It can lead you down the rabbit hole of their history of controversy (e.g., lawsuits), compromised principles, and questionable business practices.
I won’t get into the details, but it appears that the Engelharts’ have built a money-hungry enterprise under the guise of vegan ethics, vegan culture and the principles of gratitude.
Although I am sad that I can no longer eat at their restaurants, I’m glad that this news broke out and that their true colors have been exposed to the vegan community.