This month I sat down with the new owners of Bartertown Diner, Crystal Lecoy and Thad Cummings, to chat about their vegan diner’s recent transformation and revamped plant-based menu. Find out the reformist restaurateurs’ noble game plan and how they’re handling the business after taking the reins from former Bartertown owner Ryan Cappelletti.
So, what’s changed since you guys took over Bartertown?
Lecoy: Lots. We really changed the interior of the space and the aesthetics to make it more comfortable and inviting for our staff to work in and for our customers to feel welcome. And we immediately got rid of tipping. We started our “Give a Taco, Take a Taco” program. There’s a community board on the wall as soon you as you walk into the restaurant, with $2 tacos and $5 bowls of food. Instead of tipping, customers can buy a voucher for the board or take the coupon with them so they can give it to someone in need of a healthy meal.
Cummings: And we want to challenge the way that people look at the word “need.” Because people are going to automatically assume that it should go to a homeless person who can’t afford a meal. But, we all have bad days and that’s okay. It’s nice to have somebody just buy you a meal, even if you could afford it. Because then you’re just that much more likely to go and reciprocate in the community.
And the no-tipping policy? You guys are like the Danny Meyer’s of Grand Rapids.
Lecoy: I think we’re the only ones in Michigan. At least that we know of.
Cummings: Yeah, technically I cheated because I saw a video of some pizza place in New York where you can buy a slice for somebody if you want. I’d love to say I came up with it, but there’s people out there doing it.
It’s pretty cutting edge stuff as far as restaurant culture goes.
Cummings: It’s a big part of how we’d like to change the restaurant model. When you make $3.10 an hour and you have a rainy week, nobody makes any money. So now you’re scrubbing toilets at $3.10 an hour. That’s not what people wake up and say they want to do with their life. If you can change that model and treat your employees with respect, pay them a livable wage and give them a chance not to worry about surviving paycheck to paycheck, that’s one of the goals here.
Lecoy: I think that resonates equally with our staff and the community. We want to bring change and provide dignity to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to have a meal here. But we also want to provide that same dignity to our servers.
So you could say Bartertown is not only changing the industry, they’re changing the world. Can a restaurant change the world?
Cummings: That secret little voice inside my head says, “Yeah, let’s change the world and challenge this old model.” The reality of the situation is that I’ve worked for some of the largest corporations in this country and their business model is no different from the old restaurant model. At some point, you just stop and say, “What the hell are we doing in this world and why do we intentionally treat each other like shit?” At what point do you realize that we’re all human?
Lecoy: So yes, we hope to change the world, in short.
Any changes to the menu?
Lecoy: We want to use more local [ingredients] and more seasonal offerings. Starting in May, our head chef Mitch and his sous-chef Emily will have a new seasonal menu for the summer. We’ll be adding Tuesdays to our calendar and dinner hours from 4 to 8 p.m. starting that month, too. We do want to keep some of Bartertown’s classics on the menu, so we’ll retain a little of that, but we want to offer our own take on plant-based food as well.
Why do many vegan menus emphasize meat substitutes? Like tempeh “chorizo.” Why do that when you’re working with the variety of color, texture, smells and shapes of the plant kingdom?
Lecoy: We’ve actually had a lot of conversations about color and flavor on the new menu. The old Bartertown used a lot of spice to flavor their dishes rather than the essence of the natural foods. We hope to change that when we’re using Michigan grown produce or foraging for natural ingredients, rather than relying on just spice, tofu and bread. [We’re] really getting rid of the high-carb content and focusing on what’s fresh and healthy and local.
UPDATES: Bartertown eventually changed its name to The Garden Diner and has closed for business as of late November 2016.