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Photos courtesy of Whitney Borkowski
Ironically located next to a meat market, the quirky and quaint Sweet Pea Café is a local Tallahassee, FL favorite for mouth-watering vegan and vegetarian dining. Located on the edge of midtown, the café is frequently crowded with familiar faces and loyal regulars.
Rachel Kaufmann, co-owner of and chef at Sweet Pea Café, is the definition of an entrepreneur, starting with working in restaurants since the age of 15. From waitressing to managing, Rachel has experience working in most positions in the restaurant industry, and she clearly has a deep appreciation for all that it takes to run her own restaurant.
Over a cup of their locally roasted coffee, Rachel met with me at Sweet Pea and started our interview by praising the restaurant’s fabulous team. She made sure to elaborate on one person she “couldn’t do without” – Justin Pogge – explaining how she met Justin while working at the Bread and Roses Food Co-op in the local art district of Tallahassee. Today they still remain on the board of directors for the Co-op, and their shared interest in vegan cooking and complimentary culinary backgrounds eventually brought them together as co-owners of Sweet Pea Café.
“We work well together,” she explained. “He’s more hands on. He built everything inside; the tables, the countertops” – and gesturing toward my now near-empty cup of coffee – the “green fair trade coffee beans are locally roasted by Justin, too – he roasts them at home.”
The success that Sweet Pea Café has had in its three short years demonstrates Rachel’s belief that “having a really solid business partner is a huge part of having a successful business.”
Rachel’s close relationships with their seasonal produce providers is evident as well, apparent in her large grin and light-hearted demeanor as she describes each of their contributions to Sweet Pea Café.
Claire and Danielle at Ten Speed Greens Urban Farm have a plot of land where they plant, grow, harvest, and distribute to local restaurants via ten-speed bicycle, and Full Earth Farms has been invested in by Rachel and Justin from day one. “It is super important to have a good relationship with local businesses and farms,” she explains, “Ten Speed Greens, for instance, picks their produce, and within 12 hours we are serving it. It comes from one mile away and you definitely notice the difference.”
In addition to the savory specialties Sweet Pea Café offers – like their famous basil-lemonade, buffalo tofu sandwich, and the Reuben with homemade ruby sauerkraut (menu favorite) – Rachel is an extremely talented baker. The restaurant offers a catering service, and with the help of her sister Jamie, their specialty cakes and sweets are nothing short of fantastic.
“It’s really important to support local agriculture – you’re putting your money right back into the community – not to one, no-name corporate monster,” Rachel explains.
Rachel is an avid supporter of local businesses in the community, and she finds it extremely important to “expose people to healthy, cruelty-free food, while simultaneously living in a socially aware environment,” all of which is apparent in the quality of the food at Sweet Pea Café, but also in the subtleties such as the compost bins and gender-neutral painted bathroom signs.
Rachel stresses the importance of “trying to be aware of where we put our money” – again, avoiding the aforementioned corporate monsters – but also donating to charities and community service providers like the local Florida State University radio station (V89) and the FSU Pride Student Union.
It is no surprise that Sweet Pea Café has received accolades for their menu and service. They won “best vegan restaurant” at FSU in 2012, and were recently nominated for “favorite local restaurant/coffee shop” for the local Tally Awards.
Both excited and humbled by these recognitions, Rachel brings it full-circle by stressing how she could not have made it where she is today if it weren’t for the “family” she’s created with her friends and employees at Sweet Pea Café. With fewer than 10 people working there, Rachel never takes her employees for granted, and continually acknowledges their dedication to the overall success of the restaurant.
As for the future, Rachel hopes to eventually move to New York City and continue her passion for vegan cooking there. “It excites me and terrifies me at the same time,” she says of a move to the big city. “A realistic goal would be to live in NY by the time I’m 30 – I’m 28 now – and I think by then I’ll be ready.”
In addition to cooking and baking, Rachel enjoys music, painting, and “crafty things.” While drinking and bar hopping isn’t in her everyday schedule, you can find Rachel at drag shows around Tallahassee instead.
Without a doubt, Rachel Kaufmann is one of the more successful young entrepreneurs in this small, agriculturally rich town, and her philosophy is surprisingly simple: “It’s just how we cook and how we feel – if you want to eat here, that’s great – I just want people to feel local, feel homey, and feel like they are in a welcoming place, all while eating local, too.”