An Interview with Bart Potenza, Owner Candle Cafe, Candle Cafe West & Candle 79

What would you do if you won the lottery?  Bart Potenza and his partner Joy Pierson opened their dream restaurant.  Having a successful juice bar and small cafe, it was time to expand so Bart and Joy played the lottery (on Friday the 13th in 1993) and won $53,000!

It allowed them to open Candle Cafe on 3rd Avenue on the Upper East Side.  Since then, the power couple has been at the forefront of the vegetarian and green movements in New York City proving that dreams do come true.  Seven years later they created Candle 79, one of the first upscale vegan restaurants in the country, and now the new CandleCafe West. Hard work, vision, and a little luck helped. Recently, I sat down with Bart at Candle Cafe to dish about men, life and good food.

Lisa Dawn Angerame: Congratulations, you just opened your third restaurant! What brought you to the Upper West Side?

Bart Potenza: We’ve had many requests. It took a while but we finally found a great location at 2427 Broadway (between 89th and 90th streets.)  We are busier than we expected, seating about 200 people a day!

LDA: What is the vibe like at Candle Cafe West?

BP: It is a cross between the casual atmosphere of the Cafe and the upscale ambience of Candle 79.

LDA: What about the menu?

BP: There are a lot of Candle Cafe favorites like the Good Food Plate and the Paradise Casserole, with a few Candle 79 dishes like Spaghetti and Wheatballs thrown in, and a some, like macaroni and cheese, that are unique to Candle Cafe West.

LDA: How has the vegan restaurant scene in the city changed over time?

BP: More customers, specifically more men, and more catering events.

LDA: Men! Love that.  What does it take to keep a vegan restaurant going?

BP: Tenacity, guts, and a very clear mission.

LDA: And might I add, great food!  Can you outline your mission for us?

BP: We are dedicated to health through a commitment to excellent vegetarian cuisine.  Our menu is comprised of a seasonal array of organic ingredients, like seasonal greens, ramps and sweet potatoes.  By supporting organic farming and avoiding animal products, we acknowledge the interconnectedness of environmental, spiritual, and physical well-being.

LDA:What is the biggest food trend right now?

BP: Raw food and gluten-free. A good portion of our menus at all three restaurants are gluten-free so we have a special menu to make it easier for our gluten-free customers to figure out what they want to order.

LDA: There is a lot of momentum in the literature and health care regarding a vegan/plant-based diet. Why do you think that is?

BP: I say it’s because smart people are eating great food and we have a planet to save! Joy and I always say that it is more difficult to change people’s food habits, then their religion or politics. The vegan movement has hit critical mass and the planet, our health, and the health of the animals are suffering. We are paying enormous healthcare costs and the majority of people don’t even question their food choices as a possible culprit. But, after 30 years, even though our restaurants are super busy, too many people are not making the connection that ‘you are what you eat.’ It takes years for the heart attacks, cancers and diabetes to occur.  The good news is that a plant-based vegan diet has been proven to treat and even reverse some of these terrible diseases.

LDA: What charitable organizations do you support that help get the word out?

BP: We love to support our friends at Farm Sanctuary and PETAThe Coalitionfor Healthy School Lunch Program is very dear to our hearts – Joy and I are both on the board – and it is something we have put a lot of time into.  It is a program that introduces plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools to educate the whole school community.  Our motto is “changing how schools feed kids” and one of our programs is called Cool School Food.  Schools are the place where students go to learn, and part of what they learn about, at least in certain grades, is nutrition.

LDA: What is your best advice for the at home vegan cook?

BP: Buy a great sauté pan and a sharp knife.

LDA: What is your best advice for someone who wants to go vegan but is not sure where to start?

BP: Find a friend or family member who is vegan and shop and cook alongside them. Get a copy of the vegetarian starter kit from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM.) Research recipes on the internet and get a few cookbooks. We have two from our restaurants: Candle 79 Cookbook: Modern Vegan Classics from New York’s Premier Sustainable Restaurant and The Candle Cafe Cookbook: More Than 150 Enlightened Recipes from New York’s Renowned Vegan Restaurant.

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