Iam chatting with Crystal Davis, owner of The Wild Oat Bakery and Cafe in downtown Bellingham, as a server whizzes by with a burger and side salad. The smell is heavenly—salty, tangy, mouth-watering. But what’s the big deal about a restaurant that serves a burger?
“Everything on the menu is 100% vegan,” Crystal says, donning a simple black sweater. She gives off the vibe of someone you want to know. I dined here a couple weeks before our interview and every item—down to the iced tea—was exquisite; not the pre-conceived notions most of us have about vegan food. You would never know, if you didn’t already.
“My belief is that you want to wow people,” Crystal says. “The last thing I want is for someone who isn’t really a vegan person to come in and get something that isn’t really fantastic and then they go, ‘Yep, see? I knew I didn’t like vegan food.’ If it’s not ‘wow’, it doesn’t go on the menu.”
Dishes clink in the background and a machine steams foamy soy cappuccinos as Crystal tells me about growing up on a farm in Oregon. She was a carnivore well into her adult life and didn’t give it a second thought until about five years ago. Her biggest influence was her long-time vegan friend, Rochelle.
“I was always curious and I asked her questions here and there but I always thought it was a little extreme,” Crystal says. “She never pushed me but she would always give me information to chew on. And then one day I was watching Katie Couric interview Ellen DeGeneres. She asked why Ellen went vegan and Ellen mentioned two documentaries: Earthlings and Food Inc. So I watched those documentaries and that afternoon I went vegan. And I’ve never gone back.”
The Wild Oat’s interior is cozy and welcoming. The walls are painted red and black, giving a bold, edgy feeling, a bit like Crystal herself. The walls are lined with large metallic artwork of endangered species, all created by a local artist, Ian Styre.
“I try to pair with local businesses and people as much as possible,” Crystal says, “including my son, who was my contractor during the remodel. I couldn’t have done this without him. And our coffee is from a local grocer, our teas from The Spice Hut. Our focaccia is from Avenue Bread. I love being in downtown Bellingham. I’ve made a lot of friends here.”
Crystal is a poised and energetic woman with an abundance of internal drive. I ask why she decided to open the café and she replies, “I’d been wanting to open this place for many years. Originally, I was going to do it vegetarian with a few vegan options because I was afraid Bellingham might not be quite ready for 100 percent vegan. This was a huge investment and when everything you own is tied up in it, it’s a very scary process. But when it became more of a reality, I just could not bring in the dairy. So I went for it.”
One of Crystal’s favorite menu items is the lemon yogurt. I nod politely, secretly questioning yogurt as anyone’s favorite food. She reads my face and quickly offers me a taste. One bite in and I am delighted to be proven wrong. It’s truly superb.
Crystal spent hours researching and experimenting to perfect this single menu item: ordering bacteria online, toying with different soy milks, testing acidity levels and time in the incubator. It’s no wonder that every last item on the menu—down to the iced tea—is so dang tasty.
When asked what she’d be doing if she didn’t own this restaurant, Crystal says, “Sleep. I would sleep. For sure.” She says this with a straight face, then drops her head and laughs charmingly at her own joke.
I ask how this experience of opening a restaurant, one with a particularly challenging menu, has changed her. She points to her head. “Oh, it’s given me more grey hair. But it’s worth it. I feel very blessed. I have the most wonderful staff. And we have gotten such an overwhelming response from the community and our neighbors here.”
She has several long-term goals for the cafe. As the restaurant becomes profitable, she wants to use the proceeds and open a small farm animal sanctuary. Her advice for fellow entrepreneurs is, “If your heart is in it, follow your heart. If the passion is there, you can be successful. You can create a situation where people are impacted in a positive way.”