For the first 47 years of his life, Charles White III ate what he wanted, He had a penchant for fast-food burgers and convenience-store nacho cheese.
Then he opened a vegan restaurant.
Maybe the words “vegan restaurant” bring to mind a burger-less, burrito-less hellscape. But for almost three years, Cozy Plum Bistro on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa has offered diners a paradigm shift to the possibilities of plant-based eating.
In that time, it has faced seemingly insurmountable odds. White, along with his best friend and business partner, Lisa Le Donne, were rookie restaurant owners and opened just days before the pandemic lockdown. Yet Cozy Plum survived and continues to grow.
“My pledge was to come up with a menu where I wanted to eat everything on the menu,” White said. “(I want to) offer options for people in any kind of a mood.”
For those in the mood for a plant-based breakfast, Cozy Plum recently started offering grab-and-go breakfast options which include bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches; burritos; and a hearty, veggie-packed frittata — all of it plant-based.
His journey to become the owner of Santa Rosa’s plant-based eatery of record is a long, strange trip. Buckle up — it’s a heck of a ride.
Less than a decade ago, White was morbidly obese, tipping the scales at 394 pounds. He had heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure.
A typical dinner for him consisted of a large pan-fried steak, a tub of macaroni salad and a 2-liter bottle of root beer. At times, he drank a gallon of milk a day.
In 2015, he started making small, incremental dietary changes. He eventually shed 150 pounds.
“Getting rid of milk, getting rid of soda, getting rid of fast food, starting to lessen portions, starting to eat local, staring to eat fruits and vegetables — and it was just little by little,” White said. “That progression walked me right into plant-based (eating).”
The changes didn’t stop there. He gave up his car-detailing business, which he had operated for 20 years, for a job that offered consistent income and benefits. He became an exterminator. It was during his 18 months in this job that he made another life-altering decision.
On Father’s Day 2017, this father of a son and two stepchildren went meat-free forever.
He did it, first and foremost, for his health. Then, about a month into plant-based eating, he had what he calls an epiphany.
“I couldn’t be exterminating as a vegan,” he said with a laugh. “I started educating people on integrative pest control so I wouldn’t have to use poison. But there were times when I was having to do things I didn’t want to do anymore.”
At home, he was constantly tinkering with recipes, trying to come up with plant-based versions of his favorite foods. He made and shared videos of his kitchen experiments. Friends told him he should open a restaurant.
Opportunity knocked when Gaia’s Garden, a vegetarian restaurant, went up for sale. The Mendocino Avenue spot was affordable, and White opened the door to a new career.
He’d never been a chef.
White picked up a side hustle as a driver for Uber and Lyft. Wherever those rides took him, he’d check out restaurants in the area with plant-based menus.
“What I discovered, at every restaurant in the Bay Area, there was one or two things on the menu that I loved, but ultimately I was craving something else,” he said.
The menu at Cozy Plum is full of foods you actually hanker for — like burgers, nachos or macaroni and cheese. They just happen to be plant-based.
“A lot of the foods I’ve created are quietly mimicking fast food, but nobody knows it,” White said. “The queso was an effort to mimic the cheese sauce at 7-11 when I was a drunken 21-year-old.”
The BBQ bacon cheddar burger is White’s homage to the Western Bacon burger at Carl’s Jr.
“We didn’t have onion rings, so I put on mushrooms instead,” he said.
Cozy Plum’s new breakfast sandwiches help fill the niche of another love he left behind: the Breakfast Jack at Jack in the Box.
To create some dishes, White uses what he calls “transitional” products that are plant-based, like Just Egg or Impossible grounds that he enhances with other ingredients to get them to his liking.
Some would argue these products are highly processed and unhealthy. White doesn’t dispute that.
“Vegan does not equal health,” White said. “We’re not claiming to be a health-food restaurant. We’re no-animals.”
But Cozy Plum’s comfort-food niche may help devoted omnivores give up some of their carnivorous delights. White said many of his most ardent supporters are meat eaters.
He’s realistic and knows not everyone will become vegan overnight, or ever. But he applauds every step people make toward a plant-based diet.
“People who switch to almond milk? Far out. People who do meatless Mondays? Absolutely awesome,” he said. “Effort is extraordinary, whether it’s large or small.”
And he believes those baby steps can add up over time.
“(To go from) eating a beef burger to eating our burger to eating a black-bean burger to eating just black beans — that’s a simple way of a healthier journey,” White said.
His journey as a restaurateur shows no signs of slowing. He just signed a lease to take over the space in Sebastopol left vacant by the Slice of Life restaurant, which, in a case of life coming full circle, is where White worked in high school.
The menu, when the new restaurant opens in the spring, will be largely the same as at the Mendocino Avenue location. But in a nod to the storefront’s history, White said he’ll add pizza at the Sebastopol location, with a lofty goal for his vegan pies.
“I’m going to bat those out of the park,” he said. “I want to make the best damned pizza around.”
This recipe, which is made in a 14-inch skillet is enough to feed a crowd or to have plenty of leftovers for an easy workday breakfast. To make in a 10-inch skillet, cut the amount of ingredients in half. Cozy Plum owner Charles White III recommends serving this with a drizzle of chipotle flavored Bitchin’ Sauce, which is available in the refrigerated section of most markets.
Makes 8 – 12 servings
32 ounces of Just Egg liquid
⅓ cup vegan cream (Oatly Full Fat is recommended)
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon herbes de Provence
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon celery salt
¼ cup good-quality olive oil
4 cups fingerling potatoes, diced small
Salt and pepper, to taste
¼ cup garlic, minced
2 cups bell peppers (red, green, yellow or combination), diced small
2 cups yellow onion, diced small
2 tablespoons vegan butter (such as Miyokos)
6 cups baby spinach leaves
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine Just egg, cream, pepper, herbs, red pepper flakes and celery salt and whisk vigorously until combined well. Or you can put ingredients in a blender and blend for approximately 15 to 20 seconds. Set aside.
In a 14-inch nonstick pan, add olive oil and heat over medium-high. Once oil is shimmering and hot, add diced potatoes and cook for approximately 5 minutes. Add a big pinch of salt and reduce heat to medium-low. Add garlic and cook for 3 minutes until garlic is softened and turns a light golden color.
Add pepper and onions and continue to cook vegetable mixture until potatoes are just tender.
Season mixture again with more salt and pepper, to taste, then add vegan butter and stir. Add baby spinach and stir gently with a spatula, cooking for 1 to 2 minutes until spinach is wilted.
Reduce heat to low. Re-whisk the egg mixture briefly, then add it to the skillet with the vegetables. Stir gently to incorporate ingredients as evenly as possible with the egg mixture. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until eggs begin to firm up on the bottom.
Transfer skillet to the preheated oven and bake 15 to 18 minutes. After 6 minutes of baking time, remove pan from oven and spray the top of the frittata with olive oil. After 12 minutes of baking, cover frittata with a lid or a piece of aluminum foil and return to oven.
Once the frittata is set, remove from oven, remove the lid or foil and cool for 15 to 20 minutes. Cut into 8 to 12 pieces and serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 2 – 4 servings
For the salad
4 cups organic mixed greens
¼ cup organic blueberries
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon juice
1-2 large strawberries
Balsamic glaze (not vinegar, see Note)
½ teaspoon everything bagel seasoning
Fleur de sel or other finishing salt
Apple Mango Vinaigrette, recipe follows
In a large mixing bowl add greens, blueberries and sliced almonds. Drizzle with olive oil and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice (be careful to catch seeds and discard). Gently toss and divide the mixture evenly among 2 to 4 plates.
Slice strawberries into thin coins across the top of each salad. Drizzle lightly with balsamic glaze and sprinkle with everything bagel seasoning and fleur de sel.
Just before serving, drizzle with Apple Mango Vinaigrette.
Note: Balsamic glaze is a reduction of balsamic vinegar and a sweetener such as maple syrup or honey. You also can buy it at some grocers, such as Trader Joe’s.
Makes 1 ½ cups dressing
8 ounces mango puree
8 ounces apple puree
½ cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons agave syrup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon ginger powder
¼ teaspoon chipotle powder
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon rosemary salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
In a 4-cup measuring cup or mixing bowl, combine fruit puree and olive oil. Whisk to emulsify.
Add all remaining ingredients and whisk thoroughly to combine.
Keep leftover dressing in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Graue at 707-521-5262 or
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