For American businessman Matthew Engelhart, 60, life began when he was 48. That’s when he decided to quit his job in the clothing industry and work with his wife, Terces, to make their dream come true: The couple created a board game that would help people to develop their own spirituality. The Abounding River was born.
Out of this idea came another, and in San Francisco, California, in 2004, the two entrepreneurs opened Café Gratitude, an intimate setting appropriate for marketing the game. This establishment is described on their website as a “transformational business in the form of a restaurant”. The couple decided tout the concept of sustainability into practice, calling it “sacred commerce.”
The ingredients used at Café Gratitude are organic and come from local farmers who use sustainable practices throughout the production chain. Employees are inspired to be “present to the abundance of their lives and live in the present moment while serving customers”. These practices help inspire people – from consumers to suppliers – to practice gratitude to others, for their health, and to the planet.
In the fourteen years since its launch as a small San Francisco establishment, Café Gratitude has grown into a chain of nine stores across the United States with more than 700 employees and about 540 suppliers. Engelhart and his family also have two other restaurants, named Gracias Madre, which combine the concepts of organic agriculture and the plant-based diet with Mexican cuisine.
The Engelharts’ children help run the businesses. Ryland, Matthew’s son, is also the founder of Kiss the Ground, an organization dedicated to promoting soil conservation.
Matthew and Ryland granted an interview to Believe.Earth and talked about the concepts behind Café Gratitude, the work of Kiss the Ground, and the controversy that ensued when their family, in 2016, after 40 years of practicing vegetarianism, decided to go back to eating meat.
Believe.Earth (BE) – How does “sacred commerce” work?
Matthew Engelhart (ME) – The concept is about being fully present at work, living in the here and now. We try to inspire our employees to stay present to the abundance of their lives and live in the present moment while serving customers. We have a technique that consists of answering a series of questions, looking into ourselves and setting aside any distractions, serving with love and receiving love in return.
Ryland Engelhart (RE) – There is a practice that we call the “question of the day.” We ask our employees and customers to answer questions like, “What are you grateful for today?” or “What movie has touched you recently?”
BE – Does this practice improve productivity?
ME – Sure! Businesses fail with our customers sometimes, because our employees are worried about paying their bills instead of being focused on their jobs. And, I cannot tell my employees, “Do your job and go home because I don’t care about your personal concerns.” Our approach must be different. We say, “We can help you with your concerns”. Working this way is as complex as maintaining your marriage: I cannot say that I love my wife in September and then never repeat that again. It requires commitment, knowledge and discipline.
BE – How do you see the issue of sustainability with your suppliers?
ME – Even the most powerful companies are getting ready to be sustainable. Executives of these companies know that if they continue producing food in the same way they do now, in 50 years they will become ‘dinosaurs’.
Consumers will, increasingly, seek something other than the cheap, unhealthy and well-packaged food they now find on the supermarket shelves.
BE – How can we take this concept to low-income people? After all, organic products in general are more expensive.
RE – But, they can get cheaper. Think about the technology of a cell phone, for example. Two decades ago, everyone would have been shocked if someone had introduced the cell phone technology we now have. Today, 3 billion people have cell phones. Some don’t own their own houses, but they have a cell phone. It is an effect of the gain in scale.
BE – Should this happen to organic?
ME – It should! We must stop exploiting our soil. The question is how long will our soil resist until we get the scalability in organics. Governments must realize that our food has become cheap, but this has resulted in rising health care costs. This has happened in the United States and is happening in Brazil now. We use the expression, “Our food is cheap, and we are sick”. In the 1960s, Americans spent an average of 18 percent of their household budget on food and 8 percent on healthcare. Today, this relationship has changed. Chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart problems, are more common and kill more people than ever in history.
BE – Ryland, you are one of the founders of the Kiss the Ground project, focused on soil conservation. How do you handle this issue with Café Gratitude’s suppliers?
RE – We promote regenerative agriculture. All the corn used in our restaurants to make tortillas and tamales comes from a regenerative farm in Nebraska that practices crop rotation. We use the restaurants to show that the most important conversation is about food that is healthy not only for our bodies, but also for regenerating landscapes.
BE – Are people becoming more engaged with the issue of soil health?
RE – Yes. And, this has been an amazing process. Five years ago, when we created the first video on soil health for Kiss the Ground, there was nothing online about it. Today, you can find hundreds of videos. There are also more scientific studies and books on the subject.
BE – Do you do work with any government agencies?
RE – We work with the intention of creating a kind of social movement. We seek to present regenerative agriculture as something beautiful, sexy, stylish, so that it becomes part of an ideal. We want young people to take part in this movement, to know where the food they eat comes from, to meet the farmers…
ME – Even take selfies with farmers [laughs].
RE – Nowadays, we divide farming from culture, as if they were totally different things. Food is in the countryside while we live in the cities, completely disconnected. One side does not connect to the other.
Kiss the Ground’s job is to show people that their food and its origin is part of their identity. The way they see the world, as much as the type of clothing they wear, the style of music they listen to. And, this should be considered when voting, for instance.
BE – After 40 years of vegetarianism, you announced that you would go back to eating meat in 2016. What is the impact of such a decision?
RE – We call this “Slaughter-gate” [laughs]. The point is that animals are part of the carbon cycle, and if you’re a farmer or cattle rancher, you must consider them. There must be some integration with animals, even in agricultural production. Otherwise, there is a risk of desertification. We need grass and animals to heal the soil.