Top L.A. Vegan Restaurant Owners Receiving Death Threats for Slaughtering Animals

cafe gratitude - larchmont exterior  - H 2015
Courtesy of Cafe Gratitude

The owners of the most prominent vegan restaurant chain in Los Angeles were found to be raising and "harvesting" animals at their Northern California farm. Now Hollywood's vegan community is angry, and death threats have been made. "People have taken up the mob mentality," says Cafe Gratitude owner Matthew Engelhart.

L.A.'s vegan vortex has angrily turned on the most prominent vegan restaurant group in town this week as word has spread that its owners are not just eating meat but raising and slaughtering animals at the working farm where they live in Northern California.

Matthew and Terces Engelhart, the husband-and-wife proprietors of favored entertainment industry haunt Cafe Gratitude, tell The Hollywood Reporter they've been receiving death threats as part of a quickly growing, internet-bred campaign against them. It has also spawned a deluge of one-star reviews on their local outposts' respective Yelp pages, a boycott group on Facebook that tallies 571 members at press time and plans now underway for a protest at the Larchmont Village location on Friday at 7 p.m.

"People have taken up the mob mentality," says Matthew. "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. I'm very discouraged."

The trouble began last week when animal rights activists discovered and then widely circulated a 14-month-old blog post written by Terces on the Engelharts' Be Love Farm website, which mixed an announcement of their transition back into a meat diet again after nearly 40 years of vegetarianism (they had been vegan since 2003) with posted pictures of strained beef broth and a freezer full of pastured beef from their own dairy cows. Matthew tells THR they have kept chickens on the farm for seven years "for eggs only," along with the cows for five years for milk, cheese and butter that's for sale. (He claims they've "harvested," or slaughtered, several cows in total and never sold the meat, only shared it with "our friends, neighbors and community.")

The news has come as a shock to many vegans, who have been regular customers of the restaurants and claim the Engelharts have built their brand on not just serving vegan food but clearly wrapping themselves in the righteousness of the vegan cause — which they argue has now been undermined. "The reason we're so upset is that veganism is a belief system," says Carrie Christianson, who started the Facebook boycott group. "You are patronizing a restaurant that you think has that philosophy, and it turns out it doesn't. Vegans should know that this restaurant has a farm that slaughters animals."

The Engelharts launched the first Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco in 2004. The mini-chain began colonizing Southern California in 2011 with the on-the-ground help of their manager sons from different marriages, Ryland Engelhart and Cary Mosier, beginning with a location in Larchmont Village, followed by outposts in Venice and downtown L.A.'s Arts District (as well as locations in San Diego and Newport Beach). Investors such as musician Jason Mraz have backed them. (A newer sister concept, Gracias Madre, which serves "meatless Mexican" fare, opened in 2014 in West Hollywood; their daughter, Mollie, co-owns Culver City's separate Sage Organic Vegan Bistro — which also purchases from Be Love Farm — with Woody Harrelson.)

Cafe Gratitude is known for giving dishes names that are self-affirmations. The most popular include the "I Am Whole" macrobiotic sea-vegetable rice and a curried lentil assemblage called "I Am Humble." The locations have become a solid entertainment industry draw for business lunches, as well as a reliable celebrity nexus. Customers range from Beyonce Knowles and Sacha Baron Cohen to Ariana Grande and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Engelharts frame their return to "sustainable, regenerative" animal consumption as the mindful culmination of years spent laboring on their upstate farm. "We started to observe nature, and what we saw is that nature doesn't exist without animals," says Matthew. "Neither does natural farming. You know, you can't buy organic vegetables that aren't fertilized with animal residue. So that was our discovery. We aren't on a soapbox."

Yet while the Engelharts are at pains to paint their decision as a private and personal rural journey separate from their public work at their urban restaurants, their critics find the reasoning specious, believing the enterprises, the figureheads and their choices are inextricably bound. "This is a vegan restaurant company that's been a leader in the vegan community," says Chase Avior, a screenwriter and director who is organizing the Friday protest. "If they're going to go around and say it's not about animal rights, it's not about speaking about the animals horrifically abused, it's just about better nurturing a plant-based lifestyle, that's something different. A lot of vegans have a right to feel betrayed by this."

Still, the couple's vegan supporters think the fury is misplaced. "Boycott factory farming — something that will make a real difference to the cause," says Rainbeau Mars, author of The 21-Day SuperStar Cleanse and, along with Ryland Engelhart, a board member at Venice-based healthy-soil nonprofit Kiss the Ground. "And as for their own personal diets, would we stop supporting the Dalai Lama because he eats meat? Or stop supporting the organic farmer who grows your tomatoes because she eats meat?"

After that interview, Mars wrote a long follow-up email to THR to clarify her position ("despite needing to go teach a yoga class on the helicopter pad of the Four Seasons this morning and head out of town this evening"). In it, Mars explains how she has worked in "service to greater humanity" and preaches a sort of compassion. "I feel we should support the leaders in our community that are sharing charity and compassion, health and community activism such as the founders of Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre," she says. "I invite us all to not point the finger at others but look at ourselves."

Such thinking doesn't sit well with others who have spoken out about the Engelharts' choices at Be Love Farm, which according to the couple these days supplies only a limited amount of fruits and vegetables to the restaurants. One of them is the musician Moby, who opened his own vegan restaurant five months ago in Silver Lake called Little Pine. "I sincerely hope that they discontinue their practice of raising and killing animals for food," he wrote on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Cooking Channel personality and raw food chef Jason Wrobel (his clients include Robin Wright and Jeremy Piven) penned a long open letter on his website, echoing many online sentiments: "People feel misled, deliberately lied to and that a business they've so lovingly supported for many years has lost its way. I feel that my hard-earned money has been used for purposes that are unethical, cruel and out-of-alignment with my values. And I strongly feel that a more public announcement from the company should have been made about the practices at the farm, not tucked away in some obscure blog post."

For their part, the Engelharts profess to be perplexed by the dissent. "I don't think there's any organization on the planet that's done more to promote a plant-based diet than us," says Matthew. "We've moved it from a dogma to a genre. We serve 28,000 meals a week in all of our enterprises. We've done nothing but a plant-based diet at our restaurants and we're being attacked. It doesn't make sense to me."

Their critics aren't satisfied, despite their record. "I eat at non-vegan restaurants all the time," says Elana Lavine, who runs the L.A. healthy lifestyle blog Klean Slate. "Just don't claim to be something you're not. They're slaughtering animals! And there's been a lack of total transparency about it on the restaurant side. It looks kind of shady, like they are hiding things. And there was always that cloud around them when it came to the cult thing."

The "cult thing" has left customers leery in the past. The couple, who like to say they practice "sacred commerce," had to close their Northern California locations in 2010 in the midst of lawsuit battles, one related to a policy encouraging allegedly illegal tip-pooling and another stemming from a mandate that their employee get involved with the controversial personal-betterment organization Landmark Forum, a successor to Werner Erhard's 1970s self-help program EST, which centered on a unique style of session therapy that was recently dramatized on FX's period spy show The Americans. Both iterations have been criticized for their aggressive recruitment tactics.

The Engelharts, who met while attending Landmark Forum, believe they're being held up to a dogmatic purity standard — one that, in the scheme of their contributions to veganism, is entirely unfair. "Somehow we got made mom and dad of some vegan movement," says Matthew. "We never signed up for that. It's crazy. Do [the protestors] check in on the diets of every other vegan restaurant owner? Do they check in on the diets of the owners of Whole Foods? We are baffled. And believe me there are lots of vegan enterprises where the principals are not vegan, or they have other enterprises that are not vegan." He goes on, "I am allowed to change my mind. And by the way, I never even told them what my mind was. All I told them was it's a vegan restaurant. And it still is! And it always will be!"