Tuesday, May 21, 2024

This Vegan Restaurant Is Facing Enormous Backlash For Embracing Meat

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Mollie Engelhart, owner of Sage Vegan Bistro, a Los Angeles staple known for its plant-based menu, calls herself a “card-carrying” vegetarian of 46 years. That’s why many were shocked when she announced on April 22 that her three restaurants, with locations in Pasadena, Echo Park, and a to-go window in Culver City, would be adding meat and dairy products to what was once an entirely vegan menu. In an Instagram post, Engelhart said the restaurants would be renamed Sage Regenerative Kitchen and that they would be “shifting from an all plant-based menu” to one that serves dishes like bison burgers, patty melts, and Philly cheesesteaks.

The reaction from Engelhart’s audience was intense. The post racked up more than 4,000 comments, many harshly critical of the decision. A large portion of commenters were angry that Engelhart had seemingly turned her back on her vegan principles. Some of Englehart’s employees at the restaurant, which opened in 2011, left their jobs in protest. “Will your dishes come with the names and photos of the animals who died for them?” asked one commenter under Englehart’s announcement post. Others called the move “disappointing” or “disgusting.” PETA also piled on in its own post, calling the move a “huge betrayal to animals, the Earth, and your customers.”

In an interview with Bon Appétit, Engelhart says she anticipated the pushback and that it’s a move she’s been thinking about for years. Her experience with regenerative agriculture at her own farm, she says, has shown her just how effective it can be at combating climate change. That’s what has encouraged her to refocus her efforts from veganism to promoting regenerative farming. In late 2023 Engelhart sold her farm in Fillmore, California. She continues to run her California restaurants but now lives and farms in Bandera, Texas, on Sovereignty Ranch, where she promotes regenerative agriculture.

Some detractors argue that regenerative farming—a practice that focuses on promoting soil and ecosystem health—isn’t as sustainable as it seems. And some longtime vegans are aghast that Engelhart is now willing to play a part in killing animals. Engelhart, though, has come to believe that a certain amount of death is inherent to the human experience—and that making sure death happens ethically is more important than trying to avoid it altogether. In an interview, she discusses her evolving views on eating meat, how she responds to social media pushback, and what her new menu will look like.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved with regenerative farming?

I learned about regenerative agriculture in 2013, and I became very interested in it. I bought my farm in 2018 to be able to compost food waste from my restaurant, and to this day we don’t process and sell animals. I had a “no killing animals” policy on the farm for the longest time, but one day we had these sheep that we were grazing, and some neighborhood dogs broke into the cage at nighttime and killed all nine sheep—tore their throats out and left them to bleed to death, and didn’t eat a single one of them. I was avidly against guns. I had no guns in my house. My husband had to knock door to door to find a gun to be able to put the rest of the sheep out of their misery. He then harvested all that meat and he fed all these families in the community around us. I remember thinking, “Wow, I’m just here crying, and my husband is salvaging all those calories to give to people.” I was really moved by that, but I still had the policy of nothing being killed on the farm. But I thought, “Nature is just as harsh as anything that humanity can do, or worse.”

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