Jennie Capellaro, long time vegetarian and foodie, intertwines her love of animals, the environment, and food at her very own Green Owl Café—the only vegetarian restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. During her time in Law School at UW Madison, she had an epiphany that owning a restaurant was her dream.
I studied at UW Madison—history in undergrad and continued on at the Law School. My law degree has been…well, not very relevant to what I’m doing now. I just kind of had an epiphany in the middle of Law School that I wanted to open up a restaurant. I’ve managed and worked almost every position in the restaurant business since I was 16 or 17. Once I was old enough I always had a part time job waiting tables and I kind of got it in my head that I wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant someday. I would ask for positions in the kitchen like some prep shifts so I could get a feel for how the kitchen works. I knew it from the waitress side but not the other side.
The Green Owl Café became that reality for me.
I have been a vegetarian since I was about 20 or 21. So it’s been about 22 years. I was working as a door-to-door canvasser for Green Peace discussing environmental issues. I had grown up in a small town and I had never been exposed to these kinds of ideas—linking the environment to how we eat. The people that I was working with made me much more conscious of that kind of stuff and it started to click.
I was actually working at a restaurant that had really good lamb kabobs back then…I remember proudly telling everyone, “I don’t eat the lamb kabobs anymore, I eat the chicken ones!” and no one was really impressed with me. Then I started putting it together…there was no difference between lamb, chicken, or any other animal. Thinking about where my food came from and putting together my love of animals was new. You know, I have pets that I love and the animals that are raised on farms are not that far away from that. It just took a couple months and then it felt easy.
I was already a pretty good, competent cook I’d say. Even before I became a vegetarian I was very interested in cooking. To be honest, I’m also a big “foodie,” so I care about food a lot. I never order or buy meat but if there’s an interesting dish and it’s being ordered by someone else, I think, “The damage has already been done.” So I’ll have a bite. I’ll take a bite of something like a bratwurst because I like the flavor, but I could never consume a whole bratwurst. I think at a certain point I would just be like “Oh god…this was a pig.”
My older brother lives in Germany and he somehow claims to be vegetarian but then is often talking about these German sausages. So if I were to guess, my brother and his wife are pretty similar to me in that they mostly maintain a vegetarian diet except for when they are visiting a region with a specialty food—then they’ll take a bite. My younger brother has been a vegetarian ever since he was a child—he just never liked meat—so it was something we were used to in my house.
So, I like owls…I think they are fascinating. When people say, “owls are carnivores” I say, “well not the Green Owl!” The Green Owl Café presents a vegetarian and more ecological way of eating and that is something we need more of.
The Green Owl Café was very well received by the community—we opened in late 2009. The people in the vegetarian/vegan community and Madison in general were very excited. We even had an unexpected line down the block for job interviews… it was actually a little scary and intimidating. I had a couple people helping me divide people up and doing short five-minute interviews—people really wanted to work here! It’s been pretty good here since then. We got Madison’s Favorite New Restaurant in 2010. We definitely got that “bump” of people who are always interested in trying new restaurants but since then our customers have been pretty consistent over time.
There are numerous awards that I’ve gotten that I feel very proud of. We got an award from PETA for having one of the best vegetarian BLT’s. We consistently win Madison’s favorite vegetarian restaurant from the Isthmus favorites and Madison Magazine’s food contest. I think the best part is just being here and making people happy.
I wear many hats. Today I was waiting tables, which I do from time to time when we are kind of short staffed. I started waiting tables a couple months ago because I realized I want to connect with my customers again. When I am in the kitchen or the office I am not getting that kind of exposure, so it’s kind of fun for me. Other than that, I fill-in in the kitchen as needed from dishwasher to prep cook to line cook. My daily tasks as restaurant owner are almost too numerous to list but they include payroll, paying invoices, running for supplies and various things like putting out fires and solving crazies with the computer system.
There are definitely some food safety issues that we don’t have to worry about as a vegetarian restaurant. When you’re not dealing with raw chicken or blood you don’t have to worry about those kinds of things. It’s just a really different feel…that kind of danger in the kitchen. Of course you still have to be careful and refrigerate things and watch out for expiration dates but there’s a difference when you’re working in a kitchen without meat. For the vegetarian employees and myself it makes it a lot more pleasant to deal with tofu versus deveining shrimp—something I never ever want to do again.
Unfortunately, there is currently this big movement of meat-focused restaurants that use the entire animal, which I suppose if you are going to eat meat, it’s the right way to do it. Less waste. Maybe not the best timing for Green Owl because it seems like all of the sudden eating animal hearts and things like that were kind of the rage. I still think that there’s a core population of vegetarians and vegans that really appreciate us and there’s also meat eaters who enjoy eating a different type of cuisine here at the Green Owl.
We are just trying to offer vegetarian “comfort food.” The overarching theme is vegetarian so we can do a lot of different ethnicities and things…we have a sesame peanut noodle dish, an African sweet potato stew, and then we do some things that sort of replicate meat dishes like the TLT with avocado which is a tempeh bacon that we make in house—it doesn’t really taste like a BLT from what I remember, but it’s just a really good sandwich in its own right. The TLT is definitely one of our most popular items. It’s the variety of different food choices that make people happy.
Some people get overwhelmed because they are not used to having so many decadent vegetarian options. There are a lot of personal favorites on the menu. There’s a salad that’s called “Izzy’s Salad,” which is our own version of a Greek salad with tabouleh, hummus, and grape leaves in it. My background is a ton of different ethnicities, but I identify as Lebanese. My grandmother who lived in Milwaukee would cook Lebanese food for us. My Mom would cook some special Arabic dishes too. I lived in this small town and everyone was like, “what is that?” when they would see my school lunches. My grandmother’s nickname was Izzy so it’s a nice little tribute to her. The TLT is also one of my favorites…almost addictive. I also often crave the vegan nachos—I would definitely consider that to be vegan “junk food.”
We don’t require employees to be vegetarian or vegan. We are about half and half, leaning a little bit more towards vegetarian in our staff. What I have found is that if they have a love for food and for hospitality in general it works. We’ve definitely had people who are vegetarian in our staff who end up not being very good cooks—it’s more that they want to have the lifestyle but they don’t really have the cooking skills. That’s something that I figured out eventually. There are people who are just talented cooks who have a great sense of flavor and what things should taste like.
We get a lot of our produce from large distributors. We are told that they try to provide as much local food as they can. The potatoes we get, which we make into really good roasted red potatoes, are grown here in Wisconsin. We try to get farmers market produce as much as possible. There are so many moving parts to a restaurant that we had to give up our CSA box. We’d be like, “Oh, shoot! We forgot to pick up the CSA box and now we don’t have such and such.” The farmer’s market makes more sense because we make a deliberate stop for things that are in season, like eggplant for example. We also have some farmers who we work with who drop off kale and other vegetables when they are available.
I’m here so much that I don’t have too much opportunity out of the workplace. In my own life I’m vegetarian and even though I spend a lot of time here cooking I still love to cook at home and have dinner parties—always vegetarian of course. I suppose I’m promoting the lifestyle that way in that aspect of my life.
Some omnivores might not like the idea of a veggie meatloaf that sort of resembles a meatloaf but it has mushrooms and walnuts in it. Some people are like “I’m not eating that!” if they get dragged in by a family member or something like that. People have different reactions…some also say, “wow this tastes just like meatloaf” or even better. You have a whole range of reactions from vegetarians and vegans too—some people say how they don’t want to eat things that resemble meat at all and others find themselves comforted by food that reminds them of things they ate growing up.
I think everyone can come to vegetarianism or veganism for their own reasons. I respect the range of reasons why people make their choices. For me, the real reason was that I had this epiphany about the animals and how eating them just started seeming so bizarre—how could I have a dog or cat that I love and care for and then go and eat a cow or pig. I grew up on a farm so cows surrounded me and they are just really nice, intelligent animals. People have all different reasons—health aspects, environmental, etc. We are just here to provide the food and people can have their own reasons for why they come in, but we are always happy to have them.
— Ashley Hampton