Vital Foods began in January 2013. Founded by James Whiskeyman and Louvenia Magee, its core business has long been centered on wholesale produce distribution to customers like Downtown business Zendo.
At 6 p.m. on a cloudy Thursday evening, Vital Foods, a tiny café on the northern edge of Barelas is packed to the gills. People of all ages mill elbow-to-elbow, eat at tables clustered against the wall, lean on the lengthy counter talking with frontline prep workers and patiently form a line to place their orders – a line that snakes all the way back to an area where packaged groceries crowd slatwall shelves. Wait, this is opening night at the juice bar?
Amazingly enough, it is. And to be clear, “juice” here is not a euphemism for booze or vaping supplies. Hordes of Burqueños have come out to Vital Foods (924 Coal SW) to sample their fresh produce, fruit juice blends, sandwiches and other plant-based, organic fare. They’re treating it like the party it is – DJ ZiaSon concocts a funky, jazzy atmosphere while kids romp on the sidewalk and the conversation swells to a low roar. Clearly a lot of food is being shoveled into a lot of mouths.
Opening night offerings include a special $1 menu that is unlike anything Mickey D’s ever dreamed of. I order one of everything, and it’s a chromatic smorgasbord. Beverages include two kinds of smoothies (orange and green), carrot juice and strawberry lemonade. The best of these is the green smoothie, which has a summery, sweet banana flavor. It’s the kind of thing you can drink for taste while simultaneously feeling smug about how healthy it is. The carrot juice’s tang is as bright as its vehemently orange color – it’s tasty as long as you are extremely fond of carrots. Which I luckily am.
The sandwiches, served on crusty, whole-grain bread from the Bosque Baking Company (922 Coal SW) right next door, also prove delicious. The avocado and vegetable includes diced red bell pepper, baby spinach leaves and cucumber. The hummus and vegetable combines artichokes and – in a move that seems like it shouldn’t work but somehow does – crispy slices of yellow squash. And the BBQ soy curls with jalapeño slaw balances a chewy sweetness with mild fire. I can’t pick a favorite from the three – the sandwich with soy curls is the most exotic, but all three are essentially uncomplicated, well-prepared food. For anyone who still thinks grilled cheeses or veggie burgers are the only sans-meat sandwich options, food like this can be something of a revelation.
The orange smoothie and strawberry lemonade aren’t bad, but they’re far less sweet than you’d expect them to be. The lemonade is a lovely shade of pinkish-orange, though, and has a distinctly slippery mouthfeel that I enjoy. Another gorgeous $1 course was the rice and vegetable bowl, which is heaped with shallots, shredded cabbage, red bell pepper, jalapeño and yellow squash to form a multicolored medley. It’s wholesome and filling, but it could use some salt or sauce to make its flavors truly pop. Most beautiful of all are the purple leaf cucumber boats, which, with their colorful lettuces, diced avocado, mild hummus dollops and dill sprigs, would be absolute crunchy perfection if they only had a touch more salt – but for me, the bottom line is that this is reasonably priced, high-quality nourishment. Anyone can add salt if their palate craves it.
And let me declare that I would forgive almost any amount of blandness for tonight’s dessert cup – pitted dates stuffed with a heavenly chocolate ganache and enriched by just the right amount of salty bite.
A couple days after the opening, I spoke with Robert Hoberg by phone. In charge of Vital Foods’ marketing, he’s also personally passionate about food as a mechanism for health and healing; these interests serve him well in his role as manager of the Downtown Growers’ Market. I ask him what makes a particular food “vital.”
“Well, certainly if you’re starving in the woods and you’ve got a pack of M&M’s in your pocket, that might be vital,” Hoberg acknowledges. In other words, ideology doesn’t trump reality. But in the context of everyday life, the cuisine at Vital Foods serves up connection. “Call it metaphysical or whatever … with that certain connection there, you can feel it,” Hoberg says. “And sometimes when we get used to not having that connection in the things that we consume, because they’re all from giant operations – not that giant operations can’t have tons of soul, that’s totally not the case but in a lot of cases it is. And when it’s missing, you just get used to it. I feel like some people don’t know what it is they are missing.”
Vital Foods began in January 2013. Founded by James Whiskeyman and Louvenia Magee, its core business has long been centered on wholesale produce distribution to customers like Downtown business Zendo, which buys organic fruit for its coffee shop. The shift to a storefront maintains that business strategy, but adds a new question: “What do people enjoy that we can make … from abundant, quality, organic ingredients?”
When it comes to food, intention matters. “If you’re eating junk food … the people who make it are putting as cheap ingredients in it as they possibly can, and producing it for as cheap as they possibly can, and they have no interest in your vitality,” Hoberg says. Vital Foods, on the other hand, wants to be “an establishment that people can trust.”
Hoberg makes it a point to distinguish the promotion of health from being judgmental about others’ food choices. The message is that you don’t have to be a health nut or eco-warrior to enjoy plant-based food. “Without condemning what other people are doing, it is what it is. … Some people who come in the store will be 100 percent dedicated to it. And some people just want a smoothie. They don’t even need to like a smoothie – they can get toast … and cold-brew coffee. Is that a radical person? No.” But neither is it a deprived customer. While there are other vegan restaurants and plenty of vegan options on Albuquerque menus, Hoberg says, “We are purposefully choosing to represent that simple, close-to-the-earth lifestyle that at its core acknowledges that to survive, and even thrive, it is unnecessary to go further and take another life.”
Plans are currently in development for a produce buyers’ club and other savings options for repeat customers. Vital Foods also hosts weekly Sunday brunches helmed by “kitchen queen” Rosa Zamora, known for her culinary wizardry as owner of the much-missed Mint Tulip Vegan Café. One thing customers should not expect is a static set of offerings.
“We’ve put out there for people to expect change,” says Hoberg, noting the café’s two chalkboard menus – one that breaks out basic categories like hot cereal or soup and salad, and another that reflects ingredients of the moment. “Our business is set up to respond to growers’ bounty in any given time,” he says. Buying what growers have lots of helps a shop like Vital Foods get a good price, benefits growers who are looking to unload an abundant crop and benefits the community with the freshest possible sustenance. “From the Earth to you, we want everybody involved to be happy that they’re involved.”
Lisa Barrow is a member of the Dirt City writers collective, tweets with exceeding irregularity @OhLisaBarrow and most recently served as arts and lit editor and web editor at the Weekly Alibi.