UPDATE 4/28: In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Gracias Madre and Café Gratitude co-owner Matthew Engelhart speaks about receiving death threats for choosing to raise and slaughter cows on Be Love Farm. “It saddens me that the choices we made in the privacy of our home would lead people to feel so betrayed that it’s elevated to threats on our lives,” he says. Not that it should even have to be said, but condemning violence against animals and then threatening violence against humans is straight up ludicrous. You can debate, criticize, and even condemn without threatening someone’s safety.
Yelp, despite its many flaws, can be a useful tool. You can easily find information like dress-code, hours, and reservation policy. You can read unsolicited amateur opinions on how a restaurant could better cook their steaks. And, if the mood really strikes, you can arm yourself to the teeth with one-star ratings and launch mouse-clicking offensives against restaurants whose moral leanings you disagree with. That last one is where things get weird.
We saw Terrine get hit up by Yelp activists (Yelptavists?) when the restaurant announced its all-foie-gras tasting menu last year, and, now, Gracias Madre and Café Gratitude appear to be under similar e-siege. The problem? After 40 years of vegetarianism, their owners started eating meat.
The outrage seems to begin with a blog post from My Vegan Journal titled “Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre Founders Send Animals to Slaughter”. In it, author Jackie Day slams Matthew and Terces Engelhart for raising and slaughtering cows on Be Love Farm in Vacaville, which the couple co-owns and uses to supply some produce Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre. “They’ve now decided to kill the animals on their farm, package them up, and eat their bits and pieces,” says Day.
Though many vegans wouldn’t take exception to eating a plant-based meal at a restaurant that also serves meat, chef and author Jason Wrobel addresses how this situation doesn’t quite compare in a (now deleted) blog post on his own site (there are so many blog posts to this story). “It’s different when a business has been fully vegan for 12 years, creates a specific ethical culture as the foundation, and then suddenly chooses to generate a profit from the sale of animal products,” he says. (He has since written a new post since learning about the threats the Engelharts received stressing nonviolence and loving those with different beliefs.)
Wrobel feels that—and this sentiment has been echoed by many an angry Yelper and Facebook commenter—the restaurant group should have been more transparent about their owners’ change in diets, citing that Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre were no longer “vegan businesses.”
But what makes this all even weirder, is that the Engelharts did announce they would start raising meat on their farm via a Be Love Farms blog post more than a year ago. Only a handful of people seemed to have noticed or cared before My Vegan Journal caught wind of it. A few weeks after the initial announcement, the owners even wrote a follow up post to the original post (seriously, so sick of the word “post” right now) addressing why they began to start eating meat. Terces writes:
“Perhaps I’ve failed to explain adequately why I would pursue the path of eating flesh after 40 years of vegetarianism. The answer is non-violence but non-violence to the whole system, all species. Agriculture is most violent destructive force on the planet. It has caused the extinction of more species then any other activity. Earth balance margarine is made from Canadian canola. Organic or not this product required a plow to destroy Canadian prairie an act of violence against burrowing owls, ferrets, prairie dogs, dozens of insect and bird species. If that prairie had been maintained in grassland with well managed cows or buffalo those species would not be killed or displaced.”
Matthew doubled down on that sentiment in an email he sent us, stressing that the necessity of adding cows to the farm to properly practice regenerative agriculture. “When we moved to the farm we began to observe nature and fertility cycles. We noticed that animals play a key role in maintaining the vibrancy of any ecosystem and a natural farm system,” he says. “Ruminants (grass eaters) allow us to harvest the solar energy that falls on the farm without the brutal impact of tillage on soil life… Even vegan farmers buy soy, hay and alfalfa from the industrial system which means it was fertilized by animals or chemicals.”
Now, just because the Engelharts added cows to their farm for agricultural reasons doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to participate in their death and consumption. But, for Matthew, even though eating a hamburger after 40 years of meat abstinence doesn’t align with what veganism preaches, it is in harmony with the long-term goal creating a more ethical food system. If the cows are going to live and die on the farm anyways, it does no one any favors by letting the meat and bones go to waste when they could otherwise be used to nourish someone.
“As part of our discovery process that animals are an essential part of operating a farm according to regenerative agricultural practices, we felt it was natural for us to begin incorporating by-products like eggs and dairy back into our diets,” he says. “It wasn’t necessarily something we anticipated, but, ultimately, it is a decision that we feel is in-line with living on and operating a sustainable farm according to a zero waste philosophy. As with all species on this earth, death is inescapable, and with the animals we have on the farm, we have made a choice to honor their lives and sacrifice by introducing meat into our diets, as well.”
I’ve been trying to keep score in my head (as I’m sure you’ve been doing too) to try and figure out who’s winning in this whole situation, insofar as it would be appropriate to crown a winner. On the one hand, two restaurant owners with a loyal vegan fan base seem to be suddenly reneging on the core principles that drove customers to their business. But, if you look deeper, it could also be argued that veganism never was the driving force for the Engelharts, and that it was just the most readily available vehicle for creating a better food system. They’ve simply found a different—and, according to them, more efficient—means to the same end.
No matter how you feel about the their decision to start raising cows and eating meat, it’s hard to read the Engelharts’ justification and not believe that they wholeheartedly think they’re making the most ethical choice for themselves, their animals, and the food system as a whole. It doesn’t seem like they woke up one day and suddenly said, “Damn, a cheeseburger sounds great right now!” Without a doubt, the intentions are good, and educating people about the benefits of regenerative agriculture is a positive.
That said, I’m an omnivore who’s been eating meat for my whole life; Gracias Madre and Café Gratitude were never really intended to suit my needs or fit my lifestyle. If I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who draws a hard line that veganism and ethics are purely synonymous—that, no matter the circumstance, forcing animals into bondage and participating in their death is morally wrong—I can’t find any justification, regardless of good intentions.