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Feature Thu Aug 06 2009
I sat down to chat with Sara Voden, co-owner of Vella Cafe, to look back at the cafe's two-plus years in business. On August 23, Vella will permanently close after serving brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. - or after they run out of food (if that happens first).
Chris Brunn: You started at Green City Market, right?
Sara Voden: We did. We had a panini stand at the Green City Market. We were prepping out of Kitchen Chicago. While we were doing the Green City Market, Melissa [Yen, the co-owner] and I were also looking and planning for a cafe.
CB: What was your background prior to selling sandwiches at Green City? Had you worked in the restaurant industry?
SV: I have worked in all aspects of restaurants since I was eighteen, from bussing tables to waiting to cooking in the kitchen. Most recently before I started Vella, I was working for a catering company as a pastry chef and doing some private catering jobs.
CB: Has Vella lived up to your expectations?
SV: Yes. Just getting it off the ground, to me, and having it become what it is today - even though we're ending it - I feel that I've achieved the goal that I set out to do.
CB: Looking back at these last two years, how's it different than how you had expected?
SV: I think there were a lot of assumptions that we made at the onset about who our clientele would be and what they would want. The reality of it was a lot different. We adapted and had to adjust. Not everything is exactly as you want to do it. Sometimes the customers don't want that. You're not fulfilling the niche that they crave.
CB: How were your customers different than you had expected?
SV: Being under the L, we were assuming that we'd have the commuter traffic right off the bat. And we do have a strong commuter regular base now, but it's taken two years to build that. You would think that moving into a neighborhood were there are all these condos and lofts and people from all around... You'd think that people would stop on their way to get a coffee or pastry or something in the morning and want to support a small business. There's no Starbucks around here even. That was really surprising. We had to really earn their loyalty.
CB: What do you think got people coming in, finally? Did you advertise more?
SV: We didn't do much in the way of advertising, as it is costly. I believe that we caught on through word of mouth and basically establishing ourselves in the neighborhood. Some people that lived in the neighborhood for years only discovered us months or even a year after we opened due to the fact that they didn't see us under the L.
CB: How did you decide to carry vegan options?
SV: I have a fair amount of friends who are vegans. I think we wanted to try to be as inclusive as possible and try to provide a place where meat eaters and vegetarians and vegans could enjoy.
CB: Do you think you did that?
SV: Yes, I think we did. A lot of people look at the menu and think it's very veggie and think there aren't meat options on it. But, I think it's a balance.
CB: How does someone think that? I'm looking at the menu now and I see sausage frittata panino, smoked turkey panino, BLT, grilled chicken panino, and chicken banh mi.
SV: You're a vegan, right? You're trying to find the vegetarian options where as, for somebody who's not into eating vegetarian, the things that will flash are the tempeh, vegetarian banh mi, and tofu scramble.
CB: If you were going to redesign the menu, considering that, would you do it differently now?
SV: No. I'm a meat eater. I'm a dairy person. I'm from Wisconsin. And I love dairy. But I wanted to make all the vegan things be items that people who eat meat would enjoy. You know, you don't have to eat meat. And this tastes just as satisfying, flavorful and filling as something with meat and dairy in it. That was my goal: making food that I would enjoy eating without missing eating meat or dairy.
CB: How did you get the inspiration for the vegan items?
SV: It was really a collaboration with Melissa and the kitchen staff. We'd test things out and try them and see what was missing. And I would also ask some friends of mine who would come in and eat. I'd ask them what they thought and what it needed.
CB: How many tries did it take?
SV: Some of the dishes evolved over time. We tweaked them a little bit and changed things slightly.
CB: How do you prepare the tempeh in the sandwich?
SV: It's marinated in a sesame, soy, rice wine vinegar. We slice it and marinate it overnight. We pan-fry it in oil so it gets a crispy edge. I tried baking it but it didn't have that crispiness. It didn't have the crunch.
CB: What is the soy chorizo in the spicy tofu scramble?
SV: It's called Melissa's [no relation]. It's very much like sausage. I was really surprised. It's finely ground and the seasonings seem right. I think they did a good job. I wouldn't change it.
CB: Do you have to do much more to the seasoning?
SV: No, we just add a little salt and pepper. The soyrizo takes over and seasons the whole dish.
CB: You don't have to season the tofu separately?
SV: No, we mix everything with the soyrizo and that seasons it. You can make your own now.
CB: Does having vegan foods on the menu present any unique challenges in the kitchen?
SV: Mostly just educating some of the staff that wasn't aware and didn't know - like don't mix this with that.
CB: Do you cook at home now, and are you going to after Vella closes?
SV: I usually cook one day a week at home, and that's my day off. I plan on cooking more, when I'm no longer owning the restaurant. I'll definitely have time and inspiration to be creative at home again.
CB: Are there any recipes that you're dying to try?
SV: Not really. I think I'd like to look at cooking in a different way. I've been thinking about it in the last couple years as far as production and how to be efficient and streamlined. I'd like to have fun with cooking again and be creative. I have a small garden at home and I can finally dip into it.
CB: Where did the name Vella come from?
SV: Vella was the name of my cat. I had her for a number of years and she had a lot of personality and character. There's a little photograph of her back there. It was one of the names that stuck, easy to pronounce, remember and feminine.
CB: Why is Vella closing?
SV: Our lease is up at the end of August and Melissa and I decided it was a good point to end things.
CB: What's next?
SV: I think I'm going to just work for the next year or so and then re-group. I have my feelers out there.
Sara told me that she and Melissa will hold on to their email list to keep you informed of any business that might come in the future. Urban Belly is planning to open Belly Shack mid-fall in Vella's space. You can expect a neighborhood eatery, serving lunch and dinner six days a week, closed Monday.