In the everyday hustle of getting projects done at work, back-to-back meetings, divergent schedules with friends and family, and trying to get enough sleep, it seems there is rarely enough time in the day for a wholesome meal, let alone a daily gratitude practice. But at L.A.-based restaurant Café Gratitude, living a balanced lifestyle is about much more than taking a full lunch break. It’s a way of life.
Ryland Engelhart is the Co-founder and Mission Fulfillment Officer at Café Gratitude—a role he uses as an opportunity to promote organic ingredients and regenerative agriculture to all the restaurant’s patrons. From the café’s numerous organic vendors—providing supplies for everything from wild harvested seaweed to organic corn—to the thought-provoking daily questions, Café Gratitude is more than just another trendy vegan restaurant.
And Engelhart himself is far more than the co-founder of Café Gratitude. His passion and dedication to sustainability and environmental regeneration led him to found the nonprofit Kiss the Ground in 2013, after hearing panelists speak at a convention on the subject of whether or not humans could sustain themselves on planet earth. While five out of the six panelists said no, Engelhart was struck by the final panelist’s assertion that human survival is staked on our treatment of the soil.
Ever since then, Kiss the Ground has been dedicated to educating leaders and transitioning farmers into regenerative agriculture practices. The nonprofit has produced educational films and documentaries, with the goal of helping the planet’s soil recover for the benefit of farmers and the human race as a whole.
To this end, Café Gratitude functions in some way as a microcosm for Engelhart’s work. The plant-based meals are grown by vetted suppliers who keep the environment in mind, and Engelhart’s own family farm, Be Love Farm, practices regenerative agriculture across all its operations. We took a moment with Engelhart to dig deep into the ethos behind the restaurant, and the role every one of us has to play in restoring the soil.
What is the ethos that drives Café Gratitude, and how is it reflected in the food?
Our ethos since day one has really been about food as medicine. How do we take care of the earth and our bodies? It comes down to every ingredient and every supplier that we use and stand behind. We ethically source everything. Most restaurants have three or four vendors, we have over 40. We use vendors who are part of the regenerative organic standard development process, which is a new certification coming out of the development funded by Patagonia. Although the regenerative certification is not yet in practice, it has developed into a beta test phase that has made it better.
We also brought in biodynamic wine, because of all of our ingredients are organic. This is because organic is in one sense better than conventional methods, but it’s not necessarily having a restorative or healing factor. We are looking at which certifications or frameworks are more “regenerative” prior to regenerative becoming a fully vetted, certified system of agriculture. And we think that biodynamic is closer to that standard. So we’ve brought in biodynamic wine by bringing in Patagonia’s long root ale, which is the current perennial grain here, it’s a perennial wheat. If you know about wheat, you know it’s actually harvested year after year, but the perennial grain grows on the same rootstock year after year.
The bottom line is that organic ingredients are the basic standard. And for transparency, some of the farmers that we work with locally aren’t certified organic. But we’ve vetted them, visited their farms, and we know their practices and their production protocols. We know their principles, so that even if they haven’t gone through the process to certify, we understand that they are saying yes to better practices.
How is Café Gratitude different from other vegan restaurants?
We’re very different because from the beginning, the premise of our restaurant was designed after a board game called The Abounding River. The board game was all about creating an abundant perspective on the world. When we are grateful about life, we’re kinder to ourselves, kinder to each other, and kinder to the planet.
As an organization, our menu is designed around positive affirmation. To order food, you get to affirm yourself with a statement like, “I am joyful,” “I am kind,” “I am loving,” or, “I am fruitful.” We’re not just selling people food, we’re giving them an opportunity to have an experience of reflection, affirmation, and acknowledgement of what is great and what’s best about this life. We also encourage people with a question of the day as part of our service. We like to have people think a little deeper about what is good and blessed about their lives. Our original question of the day was “What are you grateful for?”
Why do you think it’s important for restaurants to foster connections with local farmers?
It’s important because the United Nations said we have 55 years left—55 crop harvests left—if we continue with conventional business-as-usual agriculture. We’re completely asleep at the wheel if we think we can just go on, business as usual. We eat three meals a day, and that’s where we can have the greatest impact on the planet. If we drive from L.A. to San Francisco, you can see the degradation that most agriculture puts on the land. If we fly over this country, we can see that our land is cut up into little squares, and ultimately it is desertifying within the last 40 years. We’ve lost one-third of the farmable land on the planet based on poor agriculture.
It’s the biggest way that we can contribute to not only sustainability, but actually regeneration. We need to get a lot better. Now, we’re still we’re in the early stages, but a regenerative economy can happen quickest and most clearly through our food systems.
How does Be Love Farm work to regenerate the environment through agriculture?
We have a principle on Be Love Farm, which is that we’re a mostly perennial farming system. Anywhere we’re growing annuals, we are doing low- or no-till methods. We’re not cutting up the the biology in the soil. And every time we grow annuals, we put that land back into pasture for a couple of years under grazing animals, so they can refill the traditional bank account of that paddock or that field before we plant another year of annuals. We’re doing covered crops, and doing no- and low-till. We’re doing animal integration. We’re doing three-quarters perennial agriculture. We have grain between our orchards, and we have hundreds of ducks and chickens that are getting probably 40 to 60 percent of their forage from the from the ecosystem. We do composting, and we make a lot of our own.
We have a saying on Be Love farm: “The mother is modest, she likes to keep herself covered.” Nature never exposes the soil naturally. It’s a crime that agriculture exposes soil every year. If we could keep her covered, we’d have a much healthier, cleaner earth. So keeping the planet covered is essential.
What is one small change people can make to eat more sustainably in their everyday lives?
Shop from farmer’s markets. Eat one or two meals without meat per week. It can be cheaper and healthier, and it reduces your water and carbon impact. Compost your food waste.
Food waste is huge. Eighty percent of all food produced is wasted. So really be good about not wasting food. And if you do waste food, compost your food, so you can bring those nutrients back to the earth. Otherwise there’s always going to be a deficit on the planet, because we’re not returning what we took from the earth.
One other thing: download the free purchasing guide from Kiss the Ground on how to purchase food in the most regenerative way given where we are and the limited amount of resources that are truly regenerative at this point.
What are you grateful for?
I’m grateful for the incredible, incredible symbiosis that if we just open our eyes is all around us—from the sun’s warmth and energy to create photosynthesis, the trees, creating oxygen, the miracle of life that we’re mostly asleep to. I’m grateful that I’m awake to that in this moment.