A food revolution is underway and Lydia Kindheart is helping to lead it.
You can taste this fresh, local, healthy rebel food at The Sunflower Center — the restaurant, shopping venue and community center all in one — at Lydia's Organics Sunflower Center headquarters in Petaluma. Her approach to food is summed up by her vegan, gluten-free, organic tamale plate, which won a blue ribbon at the recent Marin County Fair. Besides the corn tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, the plate holds black beans, salsa, avocado and fresh green salad.
This is not a new revolution, but it has gained enormous strength in recent years as the organic market in the U.S. has grown to $30 billion-plus, and continues to grow at a steady seven percent each year.
At Lydia's Organics, you don't need to ask—everything is vegan, gluten-free and organic
In my pre-coffee morning haze, before shower, pants or even sitting upright, I often find myself wondering what breakfast meat I'll have that day. I very much enjoy eating animal products, but that doesn't mean I'm married to them. Every once in a while, it's good to sneak in some earth-grown goodness to balance out my inner lion. It's a day like this that I'm grateful for Lydia's Organics.
Lydia's Organics was founded 18 years ago in Fairfax, when Lydia Kindheart opened what some tell her was California's first raw restaurant. After a hiatus due to Kindheart's refocus on catering and wholesale, it reopened nine years ago, adding cooked items to the menu of mostly raw offerings. The journey continued with a move in December 2011 to her current location in Petaluma, relaunching the restaurant to include an events center and community gathering space.
The Sunflower Center hosts classes, concerts, gatherings and a health-centered restaurant. Here, there's no need to ask—everything on the menu is vegan, gluten-free and organic. About half the menu is raw, as well, a break from the 100 percent–raw philosophy she once embraced. "I want to serve healthy food to people," says Kindheart. "And some people might not want raw foods."
Lydia's best moments are its original ones. The "famous" raw green soup ($3–$5) is an example. A cold and smooth blend of kale, avocado, cucumber, cilantro, ginger, celery, parsley, basil, lemon and dulse seaweed, it's so refreshing it may be confused for a drink. In fact, says Kindheart, many people do drink it from a glass. As for the taste? "Imagine a salad with everything in it," she says. "It makes people really feel good."
Another popular item is Sunflower's burger patty. This cooked item isn't trying to fool anyone: "I'm not meat," it screams, with its red, mushy texture and burst of earthy flavors, "but you're gonna love me just the same." Made with quinoa, carrots, beets, celery, kale, parsley, basil, herbs and sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, it's extremely flavorful and soft, with a consistency between hearty paste and moist cake. The Super Burger ($9) comes with the patty, avocado and cashew "cheez," which is far better than it sounds. It's available on a house-made bun or a large, bright green buffkin ($2.50), made of spinach, kale, parsley, sprouted brown rice flour and coconut and sunflower oils. The buffkin serves not only as a light, fluffy, chlorophyll-packed way to contain the wall-to-wall health-fest within but also as an easy way to eat more nutrient-rich greens.
Reinventing well-known dishes by adding vegan substitutes can have mixed results. The Middle Eastern plate ($12.50) features an excellent Greek salad with delicious walnut "kreem" in place of feta. But dolmas made with marinated collards and raw "rice" (in quotes on the menu) are a bit too tough and stringy, and the coconut-almond hummus, paired with crackers, was a bit dry compared to most other versions.
Elsewhere on the menu, the alchemy of vegan substitution works much better. "Cheez" is a strange way to refer to the nut butters in many of Lydia's dishes; it's a spreadable, viscous plasma that Kindheart stores in squeeze bottles. Definitely not cheese, it is rich and creamy, and the flavors are complex enough to add another dimension to an entrée—or to be used as a base itself. "I always thought cheese out of a squeeze bottle was pretty awful," says Kindheart. "And I realized, 'Oh, I created one!'"
Some products are available to go: snacks like beet chips and kale chips, as well as desserts like cheez cakes, brownies, pies and more, all raw. (It's good to know there's someone who can make brownies if the power goes out for a few days). Drinks are another highlight—try the ginger lemonade ($2–$3).
The Sunflower Center is more than a restaurant, with an events calendar bustling with workshops, concerts and, in June, a hemp-history week featuring musician and actor John Trudell.
"I've always liked to bring people together," says Kindheart. Despite (or perhaps because of) the connectedness of people through social media, she says, "people are the loneliest they've ever been."
The interior is inviting, a peaceful environment where it's easy to strike up a conversation. Calm lighting, open space and friendly people are natural stress relievers, as is a session on an air chair; these one-person hammocks melt away the harping voice of a clueless boss better than any violent daydream or mocking web comic.
Between the food and atmosphere, the whole experience at Lydia's feels like an unmanned therapy session—a way to cleanse the body and refresh the head. It's a lullaby for my inner lion, letting the beast take a well-deserved rest.
It’s a sad day in dining when bohemian-chic Fairfax won’t have a health food empire to call its own. Yet such is the case – as of June 30, Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods health food store and Lydia’s Kitchen Café will close, after 9 years of serving vegetarian, vegan and raw foods to a dedicated clientele.
The good news, though, is that the Café is moving its operations up north, to join with the larger Lydia’s Organics operation that opened in Petaluma last November.
“We’re expanding, and also consolidating,” said Lydia’s owner Lydia Kindheart. “The space in Petaluma is much larger, we can do so much more.”
While the original Lydia’s is a small, cheerful café with painted walls accented by 3-D murals of trees, the new Lydia’s occupies about 8,000 square feet on McDowell Rd. between Old Redwood Hwy. and Hwy. 101. An adjacent 3,500 square foot building is a production facility for the company’s Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods dehydrated health food line, which is sold at Whole Foods and other health food stores nationwide.
Diners who crave Lydia’s distinctive flavors will be able to find all their favorites in Petaluma, plus more. The property has a pizza oven, and also offers more daily specials than the original location.
Just a few signatures from the lengthy menu include burgers made from quinoa, carrots, beets, celery, kale, parsley, basil and sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds ($6.50); raw green soup, a cold blend of kale, avocado, cucumber, cilantro, ginger, celery, herbs, lemon and seaweed flakes ($3 small/$5 large); and Lydia’s Favorite Crepe ($11), a gluten-free buckwheat round stuffed with purple cabbage, carrots, beets, seaweed, kale, avocado, herbs and kalamata olives in a dressing of olive and sunflower oils, pumpkin seeds, herbs and lemon.
One of Kindheart’s favorite things about the move is that it will let her focus more on community activities, she said and spreading the word on the benefits of good eating. The entire operation is called The Sunflower Center, and it includes a children’s area plus a stage for performances and seminars, with an emphasis on educating people about healthy lifestyles.
A Fairfax-based organic and raw foods maker and kitchen is moving much of its operations to northern Petaluma as part of an expansion of production and to open up a larger cafe and holistic center.
Lydia’s Organics (www.lydiasorganics.com) has leased approximately 8,000 square feet at 1435 N. McDowell Blvd. and an additional 3,500 square feet across the street, according to owner Lydia Kindheart. The 3,500 square-foot property will house a production facility for the company’s dehydrated food line, all of which is vegetarian or vegan, both cooked and raw food, and gluten free, Ms. Kindheart said.
The larger property will be a cafe and educational center, to be called the Sunflower Center, which will hold trainings, screenings, speakers and other events geared toward teaching people about healthful foods and other topics, Ms. Kindheart said.
“My whole niche is to supply food with the highest integrity,” she said, adding that much of her products are geared toward people with allergies.
The company has three branches -- Lydia’s Organics, Lydia’s Kitchen and Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods -- and employs 75 people at its current Fairfax location, at 31 Bolinas Road.
Renovations are under way and the Petaluma location is expected be open by either August or September, Ms. Kindheart said. An additional 15 to 20 new employees will be hired upon the center opening, Ms. Kindheart said. Some of the employees in Fairfax will move into the Petaluma locations.
The company’s products, ranging from gluten-free baked goods to cereals, are available at Whole Foods and other health food stores nationally. Catering and festivals are also areas that the company specializes in and sees room for growth, Ms. Kindheart said. The restaurant side features items like gluten-free crepes and quinoa burgers.
Petaluma is an ideal location for the northern expansion, given the proximity to northern Marin, Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, as well as being along the Highway 101 corridor, Ms. Kindheart said.
“It’s not right next to the highway, but it’s close. It’s a really pleasant environment and I think it will be a good addition to the area,” she said.
Other tenants in the office park, including Enphase Energy, EPIC Insurance, Raydiance, Lowepro, among others, also made the location attractive for Lydia’s expansion.
“There are about 400 people in the building and the adjacent building and there aren’t a whole lot of other places to eat around there,” Ms. Kindheart said. “It’s kind of built-in marketing.”
Alon Adani, who handles acquisitions for Cornerstone Properties, which owns the building, said the addition of Lydia’s will help diversify the tenet mix of the business park.
“What I’m trying to do is diversify the environment of the park, because that’s how you can achieve a long-lasting stability,” Mr. Adani said. “Diversification helps with stability.”
Some operations will remain in Fairfax, but Petaluma will be the main location.
“We’ll do some production in Fairfax, and we’ll launch my desserts from there,” Ms. Kindheart said. “It will be fresh food in Petaluma.”
In addition to selling healthful foods, Lydia’s will offer holistic features such as walk-in massages while expanding its catering and event and festival businesses. The location also has ample outdoor space and a volleyball court, Ms. Kindheart said.
The company was started 15 years ago by Ms. Kindheart and her mother and daughter.
It’s not every day the governor of California has lunch at your place – not even in Fairfax.
"Am I crazy, or did I just see Governor Brown walk into Lydia's Cafe in #Fairfax?" tweeted artfuljammer at 12:58 p.m.
No, you're not crazy. Just before 1 p.m. this afternoon Gov. Jerry Brown and an unidentified woman walked into , the natural foods café on Bolinas Rd., ordered a meal and apparently enjoyed it.
Perry Pearson, the afternoon manager, showed up just after he had been served. “They were just kind of in their own conversation so we didn’t interfere,” she said. "No one else in the restaurant was into bothering them so we just let them do their thing!"
It wasn’t until he left the restaurant that people outside asked for his autograph.
Lydia’s Kitchen is the café side of the catering and event food vendor you may have seen at fairs and festivals under the purple banner Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods. Lydia Kindheart, the owner, also has a line of organic and raw foods available in natural foods stores nationally, and a second cafe opened recently in Petaluma.
The restaurant features organic cooked and raw foods for lunches and dinners. Gov. Brown, who spent some time in a Zen monastery before he first ran for public office in the 1960s, and has a long-standing reputation as an independent and open-minded thinker, could have had his choice of kale chips, coconut almond humus, kale salad or even an organic burrito.
Apparently, though, he chose a Super Burger - made from quinoa, carrots, beets, celery, kale, seeds and herbs, with cashew "cheez" and avocado. With water.
I once underwent a three-week cleanse in which I ate only raw vegetables and drank only juice I extracted from other raw vegetables. By the end, I could barely look at another carrot or pea pod or broccoli floret. (For some reason, bell peppers remained palatable.)
So when I started researching raw food for Elleke’s story about it (Food for life, November/December, p. 32), I expected more of the same: salads as far as the eye could see; forests of cauliflower; tangles of sprouts; and seeds and nuts and berries, if I was lucky.
I did get a salad; it was not what I expected. At The Sunflower Center in Petaluma, California, Lydia Kindheart, purveyor of Lydia's Organics, recommended the Royal Treatment, a layered concoction made up of the Purple Goddess Salad and several bonus ingredients. Kale and dulse seaweed made up a base. Purple cabbage, carrots and beets—hence the salad's name—came next, followed by a big orange mound of Luna Almond Paté and topped with creamy white sesame dill sauce and proprietary Green Goddess sauce.
It was far more complex than most things I’ve ever eaten; there were more flavors and they were more easily distinguishable. Normally when I eat, I’m ready to take my next bite before I’m done with the current one. But confronted with the Royal Treatment, I wanted to slow down and explore every flavor.
And that's no accident. The salad is designed for each component to work together. The apple cider vinegar helps break down the cabbage, carrots, and beets. The almonds are briefly sprouted (soaked overnight, not long enough to turn woody) and then ground with carrots and celery (celery is alkaline, so it helps decrease acidity).
There are all sorts of reasons to eat raw food. Elleke's story will explore many of them. But for me, this one reason was enough.
Lydia’s Kitchen opens in Petaluma
Fans of all things vegan, raw, organic, gluten-free and generally non-toxic to your body are celebrating the opening of The Sunflower Center, serving Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods in Petaluma. It’s a combination restaurant and gathering spot where you can have your vegan cheez cake and eat it too — possibly while watching a music workshop, yoga group, or checking out some wellness literature.
Housed in the ground floor of an office park, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher of a location, but seems to have taken over the better part of a corporate cafeteria. It’s the second brick-and-mortar location for Lydia’s, which also has a cafe in Fairfax (31 Bolinas Rd., Fairfax) and frequently serves up their raw soups and vegan burgers at summer festivals.
Bright windows and fresh flowers, along with a family-friendly corner make it the perfect spot to try a vegan buckwheat mushroom crepe, “pizzaz” raw pizza with pesto oralkalizing green soup.
Best bets: Cashew “kreem”, banana and chocolate crepe; coconut almond hummus with blinis or pizza-esque pizzaz with marinated vegetables. First-timers to this cuisine may can dip a toe in with fresh ginger lemonade and Lydia’s Famous Greek salad with walnut dressing.
The center also has take out and a small selection of refrigerated Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods salads and spreads.
Grand opening of the Cafe with live music, yoga and family fun happens from 8am to 11pm, Jan. 28, 2011.
We’ll let you decide if you’re ready to handle the Green Powerball, a dessert filled with sprouted almonds, dates, raisins and Green Power Powder.
At the Sunflower Center, Lydia Kindheart envisions a community
Picture yourself in a warm, peaceful, spacious room set with small tables. Some of the tables are occupied, people chatting quietly and eating, for this quiet haven in a business park at the far north end of town is a restaurant—and a place where the community is welcomed.
The Sunflower Center, for that is its name, is the latest step on the life path of 49-year-old Lydia Kindheart.
Kindheart is not only her last name, “it is the person I aspire to be,” she explained. “It brings energy and support for me to be that way.”
Since she was a child, Kindheart said, “I have always wanted to feed people.” And so, after years of “bailing out of society because I did not like what I saw,” years of living in a self-built bus and earning her way by making and selling jewelry, she got to the point where she knew she needed to re-enter the world to “try and make a difference.”
She ended up in Fairfax, where she owned an ethnic art and jewelry shop. By this time, her lifelong interest in food had sprouted and grown. She’d been interested in health and wellness for years, had mastered cooking and eating in harmony with nature and shared her nutritional discoveries. “There was a juice bar around the corner,” she said. “And people were asking why didn’t I sell the food I made?”
And so Lydia’s Organics was born. Oh, it wasn’t yet the array of products that are now on shelves in health food stores nationwide. Back then it was a small eatery and, she said, “I’ve been told it was the first raw food restaurant, or deli, in California.” She explored other avenues including food delivery service and catering events. By then, “I was a single mom. My daughter helped chop carrots and celery and I worked out of my mom’s patio. It was a family business.”
It was also successful. Eventually she began wholesaling, sold at farmers markets, launched a dehydrated food line and opened a second Fairfax restaurant. But all that, she said, “was a big learning curve. There was too much going on and I needed to focus.” She closed the restaurant, but later reopened it because “I love feeding the community. I am a community-minded person.” By now, she estimates, she’s fed more than 2 million people.
When the business outgrew the building, “I moved everything up to Petaluma.” She smiled. “I can do so much more here. I’ve wanted a big community space, a place for kids, for movement and dance. This space appeals to all walks of life and all age groups.”
The restaurant offers organic, gluten-free and vegan cooked and raw foods. At the Sunflower Center, Kindheart emphasized, “food does not taste like cardboard. People who are heavy meat eaters walk out satiated—and surprised.”
Sachi Denison-Woods works with kids during a kids crafts session at the Sunflower Center.
The center, as she wanted, is not merely a restaurant, but a place where all are welcomed. “We’ve gotten a great response from the community.” She’s hoping to do even more, reaching out especially to seniors and teens. Kindheart feels both groups need a welcoming place and she knows everyone needs smiles and friendly faces.
Today, the restaurant starts its second year. “There’s so much more we want to do,” Kindheart said eagerly. “There’s land here. I want a farm so we can pick the food we grow, community gardens so people can experience growing their own vegetables.
“I want to teach cooking classes. I want this food to be available to everybody, want to open more Sunflower Centers.”
And she would like to open a health clinic “where no one is turned away. There are not a lot of choices,” she said, “when people are ill.” Kindheart wants to offer the opportunity for non-traditional, alternative medicine. “I feel health and well-being is a birthright. Everyone should have access to it. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but I’ll go as far as I can.”
She admitted she’s challenged financially, but “I’m making good decisions. This has been my journey.” And, she’s living her dream, “even though I didn’t realize I was doing it until I was in the middle of it.”
Why does she call it the Sunflower Center?
“We were brainstorming for a name,” Kindheart said. “I’ve been called a sunflower by some. The sunflower follows the sun, and the sun gives us life and warmth.” Also, she belives, “we are all petals, and this,” gesturing around the pleasant space, “is the center.”