Matthew Guelke, Co-Founder and CEO of The Plant Cafe Organic

By Robbie Brown

Over the last couple of months, I had the opportunity to get to know Matthew Guelke as we worked together to plan a cooking demonstration at one of Acterra’s local Earth Month events. While we discussed many things — like philosophy, world traveling, and even the benefits of meditation — the common thread in our conversations was well-being and health. Matthew is a very introspective individual concerned about how food can improve our lives and longevity. As I learned more about the concept behind his restaurant — the well-known The Plant Cafe Organic in San Francisco – it was exciting to see how his personal values around food shape his visions for menu development and food service. 

RB: Is there a particular dish or memory of yours associated with food that inspired you to work in the food industry? 

My first memory of cooking is when I was 10 or 11 years old. My mother said to us, I am done being the cook for the family. So going forward, my siblings and I had a “dinner night” where we were in charge of making dinner for the family. We also had to start making our own lunches for school. I think the first meal I made for my family was pasta salad. From there, food and cooking became a more central part of my life.

RB: Tell me about the history and ethos behind your restaurant? 

The reason that sparked The Plant was really around health. My brother-in law’s brother passed away suddenly in his early 40s. After his death, I ended up going to a health retreat in South Florida and spent three weeks there. At this retreat, I met people that were once terminally ill and that were told that nothing can be done for them, but then they had turned their life around and became very healthy by changing their diet. The ethos and mission behind that diet is to remove all the things that aren’t good for you and replace them with things that are very good for you. It’s a pretty extreme shift. Generally all organic, vegan, low to no sugar, and combining foods and sprouting them so you are really getting the whole range of foods you need. It changed the bar on what I thought was really healthy.

I was working a tech job at the time, and I came back feeling that this is really meaningful. So I approached the chairman of the board at this software company I worked at and then the two of us started The Plant Cafe Organic. The other part is the environmental impact. I then combined the two, health and environment, to design the menu.

Dino kale salad: Dino kale, arugula, red quinoa, cherry tomatoes, avocado, carrots, cucumbers, toasted almonds, & lemon cumin vinaigrette

RB: Where is The Plant Cafe Organic located?

The store that is open at the moment is in the DogPatch in San Francisco. Years ago that location served as a corporate catering commissary kitchen. We just did large scale catering out of that kitchen. Later the landlord said he had space in front of it and asked if we’d like to make it a cafe. So we smashed a hole in the brick wall to make an opening, so there is a cafe attached to a secret big kitchen in the back. Catering went away during COVID, so that was not easy. As a result of closing most of our kitchens, this location is serving as a good hub for the brand. This is not the original location, which was in the Marina on Chestnut Street. We opened our first location in 2006, which was really interesting because we didn’t know what we were doing. We started to get more and more popular without much marketing. After a year, we were just slammed. 

RB: Sustainability seems to be a big theme for your restaurant. How has that played a role in designing the menu?

I wanted to put a menu together that was casual, flavorful, and that you could eat a couple times a week. As far as I know, we were one of the first restaurants to be exclusively and 100 % organic. 

We don’t really compromise. If something is sent to us and it is not organic, we send it back. We do serve some meat, but not the ones with the highest carbon footprint, like organic beef or lamb. Pretty much everything on our menu is available as either vegan or vegetarian, but if you want to have meat, you can add it. So it’s bringing people together that may not or may want to eat meat. If they decide they want to eat meat, I’d rather have them eat meat that has less chemicals, etc. 

We’ve been audited, I suppose, by several different nonprofit groups to look at sustainability and our ethics. We were the first restaurant in the United States to get the platinum award for sustainability from Eat REAL. They evaluated our entire menu and where our ingredients are sourced 

We also serve a plant-based bacon that doesn’t have any preservatives, they are called Hooray Foods. The Founder contacted me and said “Hey I have this product i’m working on, would you like to try it.” I said, “In two days I’m updating our entire menu. So if you can get in here tomorrow, we’ll try it. If it’s good, maybe we will even add it.” He came in and made a BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado). We were his first customer and now their product is in 300+ Whole Foods. 

The menu also stems from my time in Asia. In Japan and even in India, there is a lot of flavor derived from whole ingredients put together. The Plant Burger is a recipe I brought down from Canada. It was a veggie burger sold at a small grocery store. They listed the ingredients so I used that as a starting point and changed the recipe around a bit. We created a recipe out of those ingredients and it’s really a delicious burger. It doesn’t taste like meat, it tastes like a vegetarian burger, but it is really flavorful. 

The Plant burger: vegan patty made in-house from lentils, mushrooms, beets, cashews, & bulgur wheat, topped with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, & vegan aioli on an Acme bun

RB: What is your motive behind using only organic ingredients and having minimal to no food waste? 

One of the most important things about eating organic food is that you know what is not in your food. It’s cleaner food. In terms of food wastage, as a restaurant we are always looking at this kind of thing because of the financial aspect, and because of the climate aspect. For us, we actually have such little wastage. We’ve had organizations approach us to giveaway our food waste but we don’t actually have a lot of food wastage. We get just enough ingredients, and sometimes we run out. The parts of veggies that get chopped up and that aren’t used in a meal may get juiced. For example the bottom of celery stocks or broccoli. We will devein kale and juice it. For soup, sometimes we use what is leftover.

RB: Do you incorporate sustainability into anything besides the menu at your restaurant?

We use non-toxic paint, lighting that uses minimal energy, and some of the tiles that we’ve used are recycled. Our first full service restaurant that was located at the Embarcadero won the Metropolis Magazine Smart Environmental Design Award. That location was also part of the Academy of Arts Sustainable Aritcheture course. They would bring their students each semester to that location to look at the design of the restaurant. This particular restaurant also had solar panels. The wood for the tables was also sustainably sourced. We looked at all the elements of the restaurant that we could.

Matthew Guelke (right) and Emily Manguinao, the Plant Cafe Organic Marketing and Catering Manager (left) performing a cooking demonstration at Acterra’s healthy plate marketplace. Photo by Leo Leung of ProBonoPhoto.org

RB: Due to the pandemic, the restaurant and service industry have been hit very hard with constant policy changes, turnover in staff, an unpredictable customer base, and fewer people dining out. The Plant Cafe Organic has been strategic by forming a new partnership with Artesano, a Latin American restaurant. Tell me more about this partnership and what it entails.

Part of the issue of the pandemic, besides being shut down, is the hiring process. It’s brutal. The hiring process in San Francisco was already difficult for us for years, but then it got worse. Finding a dishwasher or a cook was hard. They may train for a week and then leave. Five months ago, our night cook passed away  and we had a difficult time finding a new night cook, so all of the sudden we weren’t open at night. Other companies like Google and Facebook pay kitchen staff out of market rate, so we have even more competition. 

Our accountant let us know that one of his clients was closing his restaurant called Artesano. So we decided to hire their staff, and about 5 out of 7 of them decided to join us. We also took their equipment into our commissary so now there are two cook lines where we can provide The Plant Cafe Organic menu and the Artesano menu. Their team is very solid and they help us when we need help — they even took over the night shift . All of a sudden we have a strong team again. 

I’m a little shell shocked, we were up to 7 locations but it was a lot of people and San Francisco is an expensive city. Now that things are more consolidated, I can reframe and recalibrate, and apply what I have learned over the last couple of years.

[The Plant Cafe Organic is located on 2335 Third St. in San Francisco. They are open Monday – Friday from 10 AM – 8 PM. You can also find them on Instagram and on Facebook]

Robbie Brown is Acterra’s Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet Program Manager responsible for programming on food sustainability and ensuring access to healthy food. When he isn’t working on sustainable food-related initiatives, or playing in his band, he is often busy in the kitchen, developing and trying new recipes.


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