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Santa Cruz is Thankful for Cafe Gratitude

With a menu like no other, this restaurant came about as a result of a board game and is changing the way people think of healthy food.

You may feel uncomfortable the first time you order a meal at Cafe Gratitude, which opened Monday at 103 Lincoln St.

If you want the garlic-roasted organic potatoes topped with spicy cashew nacho cheese, you say, "I Am Grounded." The corn taco with brown rice, black beans and salsa is called "I Am Transformed."

You have to read the fine print to get the ingredients of the other meals such as "I Am Thriving," "I Am Whole," "I Am Great" or "I Am Peace," which translate to things such as grilled organic polenta with fresh puttanesca sauce (my favorite) or a vegetarian BLT with maple coconut fake bacon.

The servers don't just introduce themselves; they ask you a question you may or may not want to answer, such as "What are you grateful for?" or "What would you want to add to the world?"

It's almost enough to make a non-hippie guy run away screaming, but then you would miss what is likely the best vegan meal you've ever eaten.

"If you asked somebody three things you hated about yourself, at the drop of a dime, they could ramble off 15," says manager Matthew Manzo, 35, the son of the restaurant's founders, about the positively-named menu items. "You ask someone what they love about themselves, and that's a stretch."

His mother and stepfather, Terces and Matthew Engelhart, started the restaurant as a spin-off of a board game they had invented. The game, called Abounding River, was sort of an anti-Monopoly, celebrating not capitalism, but abundance and gratitude for what we have.

It included repeating positive, affirming messages about players.

They wanted a place to play the game and popularize it, and his mother, who had started the first Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA, came up with the idea of playing it in a restaurant, with healthy, organic food.

"You couldn't expect to  tell people they should be peaceful and positive and healthy on 99-cent cheeseburgers and Coca-Cola," says Manzo, a father of three young children who has worked in an abundance of Santa Cruz restaurants before starting his own.

"What we tried to create was the restaurants as a living version of the game, where the employees, the customers, were all game pieces moving around affirming more positive things and spreading them around the community."

With little publicity, the restaurants have grown extremely popular since the first one opened in San Francisco in 2004. They also have locations in Oakland, San Rafael, Cupertino, Berkeley, Healdsburg and Los Angeles, with another opening soon in Venice.

Needless to say, the Los Angeles restaurant, run by two of Matthew's brothers, has been big with celebrity customers, including Orlando Bloom, Alanis Morissette and the casts of Glee and Lost.

The Santa Cruz spot, open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in what used to house the Asana Cafe, has been packed since it opened Monday, with Thursday the biggest night yet. Every table was full.

Gratitude has a line of recipe books, food classes, books and clothes in an online store, or on location.

Many of the recipes are prepared overnight in a San Francisco kitchen to ensure the consistency of the fresh meals in each restaurant.

The menu is split between raw and cooked foods and features desserts that should be called "To Die For," but make due with "I Am Delighted," including hazelnut and white chocolate layer cake, sweetened with dates, agave and unrefined coconut sugar that will trick the most undiscerning junk food eater (you are reading him) into thinking he's got a chocolate-covered Twinkie.

"We try to take raw food from the level of mush with an edible flower on top to something that would be respected in the culinary world," says Manzo.

The prices, which the small chain cut 20 percent several months ago, range from $7 for "I Am Thriving," the soup of the day, $10-$12 for a salad and $11-$12 for an entree.

Why did it take so long to get to Santa Cruz, a capital of all things healthy?

Manzo, who has consulted or worked at local restaurants, including Cafe Mare, the Davenport Roadhouse and Michaels on Main, said it was a matter of ensuring that the San Francisco kitchen could send meals so far south. It turned out that they needed the work and could accommodate more diners.

Even more unusual then the menu is the sign over the restaurant welcoming anyone to use its bathroom.

What?

In Santa Cruz almost every other business directs non-customers elsewhere to use the bathrooms, which are reserved for customers only.

"We aren't here to turn anyone away," says Manzo.

tami ellis August 20, 2011 at 12:33 AM
An excellent story about a truly amazing place!
Linda Covella August 20, 2011 at 02:29 AM
Great article and perfect Santa Cruz restaurant!
Sandra August 20, 2011 at 03:33 PM
I'd say "only in Santa Cruz," but it appears that the idea has taken hold elsewhere. What next? How 'bout opening one of these restaurants on Wall Street? Yeah, right! I bet there'd always be open tables there.
kathy August 20, 2011 at 04:49 PM
Sounds Great ...cant wait to try it ....
Josh Kemp August 22, 2011 at 05:13 PM
This is truly an awesome restaurant that has some of the best food in not only Santa Cruz, but the country! The people that I work with at Cafe Gratitude are equally amazing!
Joscelyn Grote August 24, 2011 at 02:05 PM
We are so lucky Cafe Gratitude has finally come to us here in Santa Cuz!! I've been to many of the other Cafes and they are truly a place that creates community, great food, healthy living -- and abundance for everyone who partakes! The Manzos are awesome Santa Cruzians who have opened their labor of love locally! Woo-hoo! Can't wait to get down there--no longer need to get to SF to enjoy the tasty treats! --thx guys! Joscelyn Grote

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