Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Joyheart Cafe, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Running a vegan restaurant takes practice.”
The emergence of COVID-19 caused what seemed to be upheavals beyond counting in the daily lives of individuals across the nation. The catering industry has been no exception to such challenges, and owners of small cafes, whose business heavily depends upon human traffic, have encountered myriad difficulties in sustaining their livelihoods. Joyheart, a cafe located in San Jose, California, nearly closed when business plummeted over the past few months.
“It was very hard to keep a cafe in the pandemic,” said Frank Kao, the young manager who is in charge of Joyheart Cafe. “Just try to think of it as practice. Make the hard times a learning process.” To attract more customers, Frank Kao launched new take-out food products that better suit the pandemic, and also actively joined Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement.
A New Running a Restaurant Takes Practice Menu
“When watching the water boil, put all the ingredients in like this!”
“Hey, thank you for coming to say hello! What would you like to have today?”
“I have to fix our website in the afternoon. There is a problem that needs to be solved…”
A young and cheerful voice drifts through the Joyheart Cafe in San Jose. Frank Kao, the restaurant manager, who also serves as IT, product manager, chef, and secretary, carries out all of these duties with joy. He trains his employees, and their combined creativity helps develop new and exciting products. He manages day-to-day operations in the restaurant, and also takes care of the restaurant’s website.
“I used to be much busier than I am now.” Before joining the Joyheart Cafe, Frank worked as the store manager of a hot pot restaurant. Under his leadership, the staff team increased the monthly turnover from $25,000 to $100,000.
“I got a nice salary at that time, but I was too busy and tired, so I wanted to take a break. At the end of last year, I decided to make a change.”
Frank remembered the vegetarian cafe he used to help at as a part-timer. The cafe carefully selects their ingredients to make sure that they do not contain pesticides or artificial additives. The concept attracted Frank, and so, he decided upon the Joyheart Cafe, and promotes vegetarian alternatives.
As the first overseas branch of the original Joyheart Cafe in Taiwan, the healthy, Taiwanese-style vegetarian restaurant is also affiliated with the Heartland market. To better serve the cafe, Frank traveled to Taiwan and studied the headquarters in Hsinchu at the beginning of the year to learn how to make more scrumptious vegan dishes.
Despite his careful preparations, Frank encountered challenges he never imagined. “They couldn’t survive the pandemic at the beginning of the year. They had to close the store for two months.” Even though the pandemic has begun to ease, the cafe is struggling with reopening. Many problems, old and new, presented themselves to Frank: the kitchen is small in scale for serving as a restaurant; the number of customers had rapidly fallen; there were no catering opportunities because of the pandemic. “It’s really difficult,” explained Frank, “but I am considering this as practice. Running a vegan restaurant is like practice. All the problems are learning opportunities.”
Tips and Tricks for Tastier Vegan Dishes
In developing new vegan dishes for Joyheart Cafe, Frank had his own idea for making vegan food even tastier: “Compared to meat and seafood, vegetables are light and simple. So, you have to work on other places. For example, paying attention to how to cut them. We have a dish called smoked bean bag, which requires cutting the tofu skin into very fine shreds, and then adding the celery, a little sesame oil, and salt — also some colorful red peppers. Even if there is not much seasoning, it tastes very delicious, refreshing, and appetizing.”
Frank said that when cooking the vegan dishes, you need to spend more time with the ingredients. “Take the most traditional vegetarian home-made tofu for example. If you just put the tofu down and cook, it will be too soft and often collapse.
The appearance and taste will be compromised. But if the tofu is fried first, the dish will be completely different. Not only is the shape fixed and beautiful, but the crispy part of the tofu block can also absorb the soy sauce when stewing, making the texture and taste much better.”
During the pandemic, Frank worked very hard to develop new dishes to attract customers. His innovative menu combines Chinese and Western cooking styles, and many of his creations can easily be taken home as carry-out.
Tomato Sauce With Cheese Bean Curd:
Utilizing vegetarian ham and cheese, secured with seaweed, and placed inside a bean bag and sealed, the creation is then deep-fried to crispy deliciousness. During the process, the cheese melts and mingles satisfyingly with the seaweed and ham.
Frank said that he has referenced a variety of popular vegetarian cooking methods, and tried different fillings. Finally, however, he found the perfect match.
This delightful dish features fresh tomatoes with sweet carrots. With the addition of flavorful and nutritious seasonal vegetables and vegetarian lamb, the soup is simmered for at least two hours to get the most out of the ingredients, cooled, then vacuum packed and frozen. Upon matching the dish up with noodles or rice, it’s a perfect option for customers to bring home.
When researching and developing new products, Frank’s creative mind will often take flight to the neighboring Heartland market: “For example, Heartland market has very good organic curry paste, but it may be too expensive for many customers, so few people will buy it.
I took it and made it into a vegetable curry bento, and it sold very well. And the same story happened to the Tom Yum sauce; I made it into a delicious Thai style hot and sour soup.”
Frank hopes to someday have the flexibility of driving business on both sides.
Working Hard to Pull Through
Frank told us that before the pandemic, many customers at the Joyheart Cafe were volunteers from Tzu Chi. Since the cafe is located near the Oakland branch office of Tzu Chi USA, volunteers who worked at the branch office often came by for lunch, which helped with business. However, after the outbreak, the surrounding office workers began working remotely from home, and the Tzu Chi branch was also temporarily closed to uphold important health precautions, which made it even harder for Joyheart Cafe to stay open.
“We used to do some catering for activities and events, but after COVID-19, there were no more events; people’s incomes were gone.” As Frank worried about the business, however, Tzu Chi volunteers came to help: “One day, Kelvin Zhou, a senior volunteer from Tzu Chi, told me about the Very Veggie Movement. I said I would love to participate, I need to participate.”
Despite the difficult business, Frank did not give up. He believes that the food served at Joyheart Cafe is sufficiently competitive. “A healthy vegetarian diet has been popular in Taiwan in recent years. American vegetarian food is usually salad with lemon juice, but Taiwanese vegetarian food is very creative and flavorful. For example, vegetarian minced pork rice, bean steak, dried bean curd ham, vegan Haka smoked duck, vegetarian eel, three-cup eryngii mushrooms, three-cup eggplant, and there are many ways of seasoning. I hope that more people who like to try vegetarian foods will enjoy what we’ve served, Taiwanese-style.”
Frank said that in the future, he will further adjust according to the pandemic. On one hand, he’ll develop more new products — such as a vegetarian fried tofu skin wrap accompanied by carrots and spaghetti with green veggie sauce — on the other hand, he wants to improve the drinks in the cafe. As time goes on, Joyheart Cafe’s greatest hope is to provide a comfortable space for people who love healthy food to meet friends and relax.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!