Giving thanks with Berkeley’s Café Gratitude

Alice Liu, at the bar of Berkeley's Café Gratitude

Alice Liu is the general manager of the Berkeley branch of Café Gratitude, a position she’s held for about a year.

Originally from Taiwan, Liu has owned her own café, Cones N Cakes, in the Excelsior District in San Francisco, and ran Baci, an upscale Italian restaurant in Vallejo, before becoming involved with Café Gratitude through her boyfriend, who also works for the local chain, which has five restaurants in the Bay Area.

The vegan, organic, mostly raw and largely gluten-free “living foods” café features communal tables and a menu sporting dishes that go by positive affirmations such as “I am Thankful” (Coconut Curry Soup), “I am Cheerful” (Live Sunburger) and “I am Marvelous” (Raw Cacao Mocha).

Diners can play the board game “Abounding River” designed by the company owners, which encourages self-reflection, as do the cards found on every table. Servers ask customers a question of the day, such as “What are you grateful for?” and “Who is your hero?”

Owners Terces and Matthew Engelhart on their Be Love Farm

Café Gratitude is owned by Matthew and Terces Engelhart. Almost half of all produce for the restaurants comes from their biodynamic Be Love Farm in Pleasant Valley, California.

The café has its devotees and its detractors. The company began offering their “I am Grateful Bowl” in January 2009, as a response to the recession. More than 200 customers request this community-funded, pay-by-donation dish every day.

Last year the East Bay Express reported that a Café Gratitude employee was fired from a San Francisco location, in part for refusing to attend Landmark Education, an offshoot of the controversial Erhard Seminars Training, founded in San Francisco by Werner Erhard.

(In the 1970s and 80s EST, as it was known, held intensive and not inexpensive seminars — no bathroom breaks legend has it — that focused on personal responsibility and transformation. It was dissolved in the mid-80s following allegations around its aggressive recruitment efforts.)

A graduate of the Landmark Forum who also attends like-minded Café Gratitude workshops, Liu has a background in finance and lives in Oakland.

I met the 33-year-old last week at the restaurant on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, where I noshed on “I Am Grace” (Coconut Smoothie) and “I Am Insightful” (Spring Rolls).

As they have for five years, three Café Gratitude locations, including Berkeley, will open their doors for free on Thanksgiving between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Cafe Gratitude's version of nachos with flax chips and cashew nacho cheese

How would you describe Café Gratitude to someone who has never been there?

It’s a magical place where you’ll have a completely different and unique dining experience. Everyone is positive and happy. There’s a good vibe here. The food is sustainable, eco-friendly, and vegan. We’re known for our raw desserts. We celebrate abundance and practice sacred commerce, which means we believe you can be in business and treat your employees in a kind and caring way. And we call the café a school of self-transformation.

Café Gratitude has its skeptics; some think it’s almost cultish. How would you respond to that charge?

We’re not a cult, this is not a religion, and employees aren’t brainwashed here. People are often fearful of something new and different or are afraid of change or moving forward.

So people can come in here to eat and not feel like someone is going to try to sign them up for a self-empowerment workshop?

Yes, of course. We even ask people now if they’d like to hear the question of the day. Most people are open to it. Employees are encouraged to take the Landmark Forum training, which is subsidized by the company, but it’s not mandatory. Company workshops, which draw on Landmark concepts, are run on a donation basis and employees are encouraged to attend, but they’re only mandatory for restaurant managers.

Berkeley's Café Gratitude at 1730 Shattuck Avenue

Has the dispute with the former employee, chronicled last year, been resolved?

Yes, after some time passed the manager of that restaurant met with the ex-employee and that process has been completed. There has been a clearing. Both sides have moved on.

What impact have Landmark and Café Gratitude workshops had on you?

They’ve helped me focus on abundance, rather than dwell on resentments or negative things in my life. I’ve been able to repair my relationship with my mother and have better communication with my family in general. It’s been nothing but a positive experience for me, all my relationships, and my attitude towards life. I see things differently now, in a forgiving and more giving way.

Does Café Gratitude belong in the Gourmet Ghetto?

Absolutely. Our focus is on fresh, organic, sustainable food, which is the exact same premise as Alice Waters and her California cuisine. We make everything from scratch. You won’t find a can opener in our restaurants or our central kitchen.

What’s your clientèle like?

People who don’t know us assume we serve “hippies”, but the truth is we welcome everyone.  I would say people who dine with us are mostly very health-conscious and advocates for the earth. We have a number of customers dealing with a major chronic illness like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease who want to change their eating habits for the better.

Does the restaurant have any celebrity diners?

The singer Jason Mraz is a regular and the actor Jake Gyllenhaal came in every day for a week when he was here. The singer Alanis Morisett is an advocate of what we stand for, as is the actor Woody Harrelson, who is good friends of the owners. They’ve both eaten in this location.

Raw, vegan desserts: A house specialty

Where do you like to eat in Berkeley?

Corso has great food; the flavors in their pasta dishes are vibrant and alive. I like the Pakistani place Kabana and Taste of the Himalayas, the Nepalese and Indian restaurant next door, which is another advocate of sustainable eating and generosity to the community. Every Sunday they run their Karma Kitchen, where they offer a family-style combination plate with a zero bill attached (donations are accepted). There’s a line out the door for that lunch.

What are you grateful for?

My community in the Bay Area, both professionally and personally, they’re pretty mixed together. I’m part of a very supportive and loving community.

May I Be Frank, a documentary chronicling how Frank Ferrante, a 54-year-old Brooklyn transplant improved his physical and mental health in a month of eating at Cafe Gratitude, screens at the Berkeley restaurant on Friday, December 3 at 8 p.m. One critic described the film as preachy but inspirational and Ferrante as looking like “the last person who would wander into a Cafe Gratitude and stay there without the use of handcuffs.” Filmmakers include Ryland Engelhart, son of the Cafe Gratitude founders.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.