Don't call it vegan: Raw, plant-based restaurants opening in Chapel Hill

Posted | by Davis Rhodes |

New Business Spotlight

Chapel Hill residents who want to eat “down the food chain” to boost their health and reduce their impact on the environment have two new restaurant options.

This year, Living Kitchen opened on Elliott Road, and the Purple Bowl opened its doors on Franklin Street. Both serve plant-based food that highlight superfoods such as kale, acai and quinoa. Neither menu includes meat.

“We take the approach of marketing ourselves as plant-based as opposed to vegetarian or vegan just because we don’t want to deter those that aren’t vegetarian or vegan from our restaurant,” said Alyssa Stearns, assistant general manager of Living Kitchen. “We want people to know that everyone is welcome.”

The Purple Bowl specializes in acai bowls, essentially thick frozen smoothies topped with fruit, granola and other ingredients). Living Kitchen creates raw and plant-based takes on familiar kinds of food, such as manicotti

“We have a team place here that is really friendly and really great at describing the product,” said Virginia Gilbert, general manager at The Purple Bowl. “It’s nice for those who may not be familiar (with acai bowls) to be greeted by a staff that can really explain to you the different bowls and benefits.”

The new plant-based restaurant options stand out in a town known for pizza and hamburger joints at one price point and farm-to-table, meat-centric fine dining at the other.

“I think in any college town you are going to have a lot of pizza, hamburger and hot dog joints,” said Alice Ammerman, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in the UNC School of Global Public Health. “Anything that adds healthy options among those choices is a good thing.”

And while some food trends are just that -- trends -- incorporating fruits, vegetables and minimally processed grains into your diet has both health and environmental benefits, Ammerman said.

“Nutritionally, plant-based foods tend to have more of the nutrients we promote,” said Ammerman. Ammerman believes that by eating “further down the food chain rather than up it,” people can reduce their carbon footprint and lead healthier lives.

‘LA Vibes’ on West Franklin

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The Purple Bowl’s Acai Bowl. Photo by Connor Hickey.
The Purple Bowl
306B W. Franklin St. (across from Chipotle)
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., M-F; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays.

Walk into The Purple Bowl and it’s hard not to feel transported to the west coast. Walls of white tile, mediterranean colors, Bob Marley playing and organic lip balm featured on the front tile, the restaurant is a far cry from southern mom-and-pop aesthetic.  

Owner Taylor Gilland discovered the acai bowl while working in San Francisco, said production shift member and UNC student Maryclaire Farrington.

Taylor, a Chapel Hill High School graduate, and and his parents, Paula and Wendell Gilland, fell in love with the California dish and knew they had to bring it back Chapel Hill, according to Farrington.

“Taylor and his family have all grown up here,” said Gilbert. “The family is entrenched in Chapel Hill and are all about the Chapel Hill lifestyle: running the trails and eating healthy.”

Farrington believes The Purple Bowl will provide Chapel Hill with a healthy, farm-to-table environment similar to what’s offered at The Root Cellar but more centrally located on West Franklin Street.

“We’re introducing Chapel Hill to an almost LA vibe with our food and it’s exciting,” Farrington said. “It’s new and it’s fresh, and people tend to love it.”

For Taylor Gilland and his family, The Purple Bowl represents a dream come true, Farrington said.

“This is something that Taylor just really wanted to do,” said Farrington. “He saved up his money to do it, and it’s become his baby. It’s kind of like Paula and Wendell’s little grandchild, and they’re really proud of it, and they should be.”

Familiarity in the Unknown

Living Kitchen’s Thai Broccoli Mushroom Pizza. Photo by Shaina Smith.
Living Kitchen
201 South Elliott Road
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week (opens at noon on Saturdays).

Living Kitchen has a strategy for introducing raw and plant-based food to Chapel Hill without scaring customers away: by creating dishes that customers will find familiar.

“I think what makes it easier (for customers) is that all of our dishes at Living Kitchen are a spinoff of a traditional dish,” said Stearns. “We’ve put our raw plant-based touch on those dishes, but they they still have an idea of what it might be like.”

Take the restaurant’s manicotti pasta, for example. Usually cooked with wheat noodles and ricotta cheese, Living Kitchen substitutes in zucchini and sweet potato noodles stuffed with ricotta cashew cheese.

“The manicotti is a completely raw dish with no animal bi-products,” said Stearns.

Barbeque fans accustomed to a pork-centric menu are treated to Living Kitchen’s “BBQ Sliders,” oyster mushrooms roasted in a smoky barbeque sauce.

Stearns hopes customers will find familiarity in the menu’s offerings and keep an open mind as to how Living Kitchen incorporates their own vision into the dishes.