If Steve Martin made a reboot of “L.A. Story,” the 1991 send-up of our city's cultural absurdities, there would have to be a scene at Cafe Gratitude. The mini-chain of vegan restaurants offers patrons sandwiches on gluten-free amaranth and millet buns, a $25 probiotic shot, and an array of entrees and smoothies with names that are already parodies of themselves. On my first visit to the Venice Beach location, I felt silly ordering I Am Incredible, a smoothie made with kale, coconut milk, hempseeds, almond butter, maca, banana and vanilla bean. The server returned with the concoction, placed it before me, and said, “You Are Incredible” as he looked earnestly into my eyes.
Since I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian nor fond of heavy-handed tropes about self-actualization, you might think that my first visit to Cafe Gratitude was my last. In fact, I've been back a dozen times. It's near home, several of my friends eat plant-based diets and it serves what is easily the most delicious vegan food I've ever tasted. Its owners have caused this carnivore to eat many fewer animals this year than I would've otherwise. So I felt disappointed when news of their troubles reached me.
“Matthew and Terces Engelhart, the husband-and-wife proprietors of favored entertainment industry haunt Cafe Gratitude, have been receiving death threats as part of a quickly growing, Internet-bred campaign against them,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote last week. “It has also spawned a deluge of one-star reviews on their local outposts' respective Yelp pages, a boycott group on Facebook that tallies 571 members at press time and plans now underway for a protest.”
Were America's butchers uniting to squelch a vegan future?
Actually, the protests began when vegan activists discovered that the Engelharts, on their personal farm, kept a chicken for eggs and several cows for milk that were ultimately eaten by the couple. After 40 years of vegetarianism, they had become omnivores again. Their restaurants remained totally vegan. Nevertheless, some vegans got very upset.
“People feel misled, deliberately lied to and that a business they've so lovingly supported for many years has lost its way,” one critic wrote. “I feel that my hard-earned money has been used for purposes that are unethical, cruel and out-of-alignment with my values.”
The couple replied in the Hollywood Reporter, “I don't think there's any organization on the planet that's done more to promote a plant-based diet than us. We've moved it from a dogma to a genre. We serve 28,000 meals a week in all of our enterprises. We've done nothing but a plant-based diet at our restaurants and we're being attacked. It doesn't make sense.”
They're right. A successful boycott, one that shut down Cafe Gratitude or significantly decreased its business, would almost certainly result in more animals being eaten, and would entail vegans training sustained fire on meatless kitchens even as other restaurants served ducks, pigs, cows, chickens, goats, lambs and whatever fish is being sold as sea bass these days.
It's one thing to feel betrayed. It's another to react by undermining your own cause.
But I guess another name for this kind of irrational behavior is human nature. The protesting vegans at odds with the Engelharts are not so different from movement conservatives who treat moderate Republicans with the disdain one might assume they'd reserve for unrepentant Communists, or campus social justice activists who turn their backs on an ally because he perpetrated an unwitting microaggression, or Democrats who feel angrier at Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump, or cops who hate whistle-blowing colleagues more than criminals.
As James Pinkerton once noted, “An infidel is someone who never believed what you believe; an infidel is a stranger, and so there's not much point in investing emotions in him. But a heretic is someone you know well, someone who once believed what you believe, but now has a different faith — that's much more threatening. You fight wars against infidels, and in those wars you seek to defeat, even destroy. But with heretics, even tougher measures are needed, because the threat is so much more insidious, threatening to eat away the true faith. So you launch inquisitions against heretics, to eliminate even the thought of heresy.”
There's a gaping, tempeh-filled chasm between the Spanish Inquisition and a kerfuffle at a restaurant that calls its gluten-free brownie I Am Surrendering. But in both cases, lashing out at heretics is self-indulgent, counterproductive and self-defeating. Admittedly, it is often emotionally satisfying and always 100% organic.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.