Laura Ross and her husband Justin Gorski never imagined owning a vegan catering business that would blossom into a full service scratch kitchen in Lakewood...but it happened! Taking Justin’s kitchen and catering experience and adding in Laura’s communication skills provided just the right recipe (pun intended) for success in Cleveland’s booming restaurant scene. Read more about Laura and Justin's road to opening Cleveland Vegan and their plans for the future of veganism in Cleveland below.
Haley Mills: What were you doing before you started Cleveland Vegan?
Laura Ross: I am not a career restaurateur or anything like that - before Cleveland Vegan I was teaching yoga at Inner Bliss Yoga Studio (and still teach there actually) and was working at The Domestic Violence Center as their Volunteer Coordinator. My husband and I both own Cleveland Vegan. He is a musician and used to tour around the country and so the only jobs he could really get were jobs where he could also leave for weeks on end. He ended up working for his Uncle’s restaurant who would allow him to leave and he just got into the restaurant business naturally that way. A friend of his opened a catering business so that's how he got to know the catering business. As the years went by and he stopped touring he got to a point where he didn't need to work at places where he had to be off, he could choose what he wanted to do and that sort of coincided with us becoming vegan and vegetarian. We kind of had this idea, ‘what if we started a vegan catering company? There's really none in Cleveland, what do we think? There's definitely a need for it.’ We just didn't know what that would look like until we got started. It was a pretty explosive start. It was just going to be Justin to begin and I would help here and there with little things and we would just take jobs as they came in and thought we’d keep our regular jobs. It exploded really quickly, within 6 months we were doing corporate lunches and getting asked to do weddings which we weren't even sure how to do yet, so we had to figure it all out pretty quickly and start hiring staff. That's a little bit of my strong suit, operations and just in general communications. I handle our customers and hiring and staffing and Justin handles the culinary side of things.
HM: So you started doing catering and how did you land on opening the cafe?
LR: When we started doing catering we were just renting space out of a very small commercial kitchen from a friend and we only had access to it intermittently, which of course, as we got busier, got more difficult. We needed a larger catering kitchen, so the space we are in now really came out of that need for a larger space. We looked for over a year and when we found the space, we were like, ‘this is perfect. It’s a mile away from where we live, it's a great location but it's a little too big just for catering.’ We also like the idea of more people visiting us and having a taste of our offerings. We would be at so many events where people would say, “I wish I could eat your food but I’m not at that event that you're catering.” When we found the space, it was perfect - we wanted to expand our offerings. When we first opened we had some pretty limited hours; mostly day-time hours.. The menu was brunch themed as we mourned the loss of going out to breakfast when we became vegan because it's pretty hard as everything has eggs, butter, meat or milk in it around breakfast. So we decided to recreate some of our favorite breakfast items and that's how the cafe started. It all just kind of kept expanding as the need for it grew. We started as a business about 6 and a half years ago, 2012, and then we opened the cafe and bakery in November 2014. When we first opened our hours were limited, then it got busier and we extended the hours a little bit and then it got even busier and we opened in the evening and the morning. This last October we expanded and we took over the storefront directly east to us to open up the whole space. Now we have a much larger dining space, a separate bakery kitchen for production and then the kitchen has a larger area. It's been this gradual evolution as we’ve needed space and grown.
HM: That’s awesome! It has to be really exciting!
LR: Yeah, it has been. We never really meant for it all to happen this way, we really love what we do. We have an incredible team and just have always stayed focused on our mission and the work that we are doing and try not to get caught up in a lot of other things. So far it's been really wonderful.
HM: Is there anything new on the horizon for Cleveland Vegan?
LR: Yeah, so there will be a lot more of what we are doing now. Our next sort of big dream, if you will, would be to put on a pretty big Vegan music festival. There is a really huge event in Cleveland called Cleveland VegFest and it’s amazing and we participate in it and sponsor it - it’s held at the convention center, but our vision is more like street fair-type event. Maybe in the street somewhere or Edgewater Park but a fun party-type event but where all the food is vegan.
My husband and I both actually started Dyngus Day 8 years ago. So we know how to start a festival, we’ve done it, and we love the idea of doing something like that. So that’s our next big dream that we want to do. It probably won’t happen this year, but yeah, in the next year or two! We have lots of other little things that we are working on but that’s our next big thing.
HM: That would be fantastic, I think there is definitely a need for something like that in Cleveland.
LR: Yes. It seems like Clevelanders respond to events like that. Personally, whenever I go to an event or Edgewater Live or some huge big festival, there's like nothing [vegan] to eat. Maybe like one vendor is selling something that I can eat, so the fact that there can be an environment where it would attract- it wouldn't just be stereotypical salads and healthy vegan, which of course there would be that- but just also regular food that's plant-based. I think it would surprise a lot of people like, ‘oh wow I can eat a burger, nachos, tacos, eat all of these foods that I like to eat and it actually tastes good too.’
HM: Is there anything else you would want readers to know about Cleveland Vegan?
LR: Since we’ve evolved from having more limited hours and not being open at night. Our little tagline that we have is, “we’re an organic scratch kitchen” and we are catering, cafe, and bakery - full service and that we are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ll still hear people say to me, “I’d love to come there, but you have such weird hours!” But we don’t have weird hours anymore! We have a rotating menu, we change the menu with the seasons, so that's really fun, it gives people the ability to try vegan items throughout the seasons.
HM: Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Cleveland outside of your restaurant?
LR: Well one of our favorite restaurants is Thai Spice. We love Thai food, we have eaten at every Thai restaurant around Cleveland and, not only do my husband and I like it, but we have three children, ages two, four and six-year-old and they love Thai Spice as well. They know us when we go in there and they veganize all of the dishes for us. We also like Johnny Mangos, we love Minh Anh, a little Vietnamese restaurant in Gordon Square. If we want to get a little bit fancier, we like to go to Luxe. They always have some options for us. We like Humble right here in Lakewood. We don’t eat out a ton! But those are some of our go-to spots.
HM: Where’s your favorite spot to take visitors to Cleveland?
LR: I guess it depends on the time of year. I love to take them to Edgewater Park, that's usually a spot that we take them to. Any one of the museums we like to go to. We took my cousin and their kids to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History which was amazing. Almost every weekend there is something interesting happening, whether it be in Edgewater or Wade Oval, we love Whiskey Island which is kind of an extension of Edgewater.
HM: Do you have a favorite event in Cleveland?