Although she owns House of Leaf & Bean, a (mostly) vegan restaurant on Beach Boulevard, green entrepreneur Wen Raiti is not here to spread the vegan gospel.
“I’m not vegan by any means,” she explained to Folio Weekly. “But I want to be more vegan, and I want to help educate people to be more vegan.”
Raiti has joined the growing number of American “flexitarians.” That means that yes, she chooses plant-based meals most of the time, but she also eats meat and dairy on occasion, as long as they’re organic.
“It’s more sustainable for our health and the environment.”
Raiti’s approach is realistic. “We can’t call on everyone to be vegan,” she said. “We’re all different.”
While other Western countries have seen a sharp increase in strict vegan and vegetarian diets, the number of Americans avoiding animal products altogether hasn’t changed in the past 20 years. Indeed, Americans’ recent obsession with low-carb, protein-rich diets has offset the overall decrease in meat consumption worldwide. However, with encouragement from our doctors, environmental advocates and a half-million #MeatlessMondays tags on Instagram, we have more incentive than ever to live—and eat—more green.
When House of Leaf & Bean opened in December 2017, it joined the ranks of only a handful of vegan-oriented Jacksonville restaurants. About 90 percent of Raiti’s entrées are vegan (though some of these offer the diner the option to add organic chicken instead of tofu), and the restaurant aims to be 100 percent organic.
The small building, located just west of the Intracoastal, once housed a Taco Bell. It now has a minimal but cheerful décor. Small bistro tables flank the walls of the dining room, and a small hydroponic garden grows in the corner. And though it retains some of the feeling of a fast-food restaurant, it’s also distinctly Asian-American, with a smooth jazz soundtrack, bamboo screens and a meditation room used for tea ceremonies and mini-breaks from the real world. This, Raiti says, is the key to keeping it together as a new business owner.
“I have a demanding career, and I struggle. But exercise, eating well and meditation help me deal.”
For diners with equally demanding careers, the restaurant has a drive-through service, and most orders can be ready as quickly as five minutes or so. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, just before the lunch rush, customers were lined up for organic smoothies, juices, loose-leaf teas and baked goods in addition to the entrées.
Everything is made in-house, from the tofu to the seasonings to the vegan cheese. House of Leaf & Bean is among the few restaurants in Florida to make its own, all-natural soy milk. Raiti’s No. 1 seller: the Leaf & Bean Rice Bowl. (Honorable mentions go to the vegan peanut butter cookies and handmade tofu dumplings.)
“This is hard work, and it’s not very profitable. But luckily,” she added, “we have a lot of die-hard supporters.”
One of those supporters is Christina Kelcourse, executive director of the North Florida Green Chamber of Commerce, an environmental nonprofit focused on partnering with businesses to make going green easier for them—and easier for the community they serve.
“We love Raiti!” raved Kelcourse. “What she’s doing with House of Leaf & Bean is trendsetting!”
This local chapter of the Green Chamber launched last month and has already recruited around 90 members, including law firms and banks, farmers, government agencies and restaurants. The organization’s first order of business is to build a Green Market Place, a database of local green businesses that will ultimately connect businesses and consumers, making those businesses more profitable while adding a valuable resource for the community.
“[Raiti] been very helpful, very passionate about wanting to [take] the movement forward as far as letting other businesses know in the area that they can be sustainable, and that’s OK,” Kelcourse said.
But it’s not all about sustainability and responsibility. Raiti wants you to know that changing your diet changes how you feel, and how you look. “I want everyone in the community to feel confident, to feel fit,” she said. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and she knows she has a lot of educating to do. “McDonald’s changed our lives in 50 years. We might need 50 years to reverse this.”
Raiti understands the lure. After moving to the U.S. from China more than a decade ago, she started eating a traditional American diet: fast food and pizza at home, nachos and wings (and beer) at sports bars.
“I loved everything American!” she said with a laugh. But it was tearing up her digestion, and she was soon at her doctor’s office, trying to find the cause. “Everyone just kept saying, ‘you need to eat healthier,’ but they couldn’t tell me what healthier was. You know everyone’s eating salads with lots of cheese and dressing, but it’s not healthier.”
But since changing to an all-organic, mostly vegan diet, she said her doctor now tells her she has the body of a 20-year-old, not a woman in her 50s. “I want to see everyone do it!” she said.
Raiti knows she has an uphill battle in her mission to make her community healthier, but, she said, “One healthy meal a day, and you can change the world.”