After sharing a serving of chocolate lava cake, Jeff Kaufman asked his lunch partners what they thought of the dessert, which had been prepared at his Clarksville restaurant, Great Sage, with no dairy or eggs.
But he already knew the answer.
The aromatic chocolate concoction of dense layers gave way to a puddle of gooey liquid inside as a scoop of homemade cherry "ice cream," made with coconut milk, melted on top.
The desert was an obvious hit.
That slice of cake symbolizes what diners at the popular vegetarian-turned-vegan eatery called Great Sage have been proving for years, Kaufman said: People don't miss eating animal proteins, especially when a chef cooks with high-quality organic ingredients.
But Kaufman, a 43-year-old Clarksville resident, has much more than serving vegan dishes on his mind. He wants to teach by example that it not only matters what we eat, but that where it comes from and how it's produced — and how all of that affects people, animals and the environment — should be equally weighed. He describes this philosophy as "mindful living."
"Our motto is, 'We are passionate about the food we eat, the people we serve and the planet we share,' " he said, "and that really sums it up."
Since he opened his natural food store, Roots Market, in 2000 with silent business partner Jody Cutler, Kaufman has overseen the growth of a family of eco-conscious stores called Conscious Corner. He and Holly, his wife of nine years and benefits director, own some of the businesses, and he owns others with Cutler.
In between the opening of Roots and Great Sage, which opened in 2004, came Nest, a women's apparel and gift store that opened in 2003. Next to open, in 2005, was Bark!, an organic pet store. There are also Roots Market and Bark! stores in Olney, and more Bark! stores at three other locations.
A fifth member joined the retail family with the June debut of Boulder, a men's vegan clothing shop that eschews animal products like wool, silk and leather, and stocks such items as reclaimed wood ties and stainless steel wallets.
Also, a new bake shop and kitchen are now producing vegan food for sale.
Annual company sales for all the stores throughout Maryland exceed $30 million, Kaufman said, and sales "tend to grow 10 to 20 percent a year."
With certified sustainable wood floors and reclaimed-wood retail display features, electricity purchased from a wind farm, and energy-saving LED and induction lighting (just to name a few of their environmentally friendly practices), the five businesses in Clarksville Square also strive to promote green measures, said Jack Moore, facilities manager.
"Every feature has a green back story as to why it was chosen," he said.
Kaufman is looking into raising organic produce for Roots and Great Sage on six acres of local farmland, so fruits and vegetables will be fresher and fuel won't be wasted trucking the produce hundreds of miles to market, another plus for the environment.
Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the businesses of Conscious Corner are "a strong partner" for the state's agriculture industry.
"As more farms turn to organic and natural types of agriculture, restaurants and stores such as Great Sage and Roots Market are a great outlet for their products," Zimmerman said.
Kaufman is also honing plans "to improve what we're doing in Howard County" that he won't yet divulge, saying only this: "If you think it's been an interesting 12 years, wait till you see the wild ride that's coming."
Right place, right time
Conscious Corner leases 20,000 square feet of retail space that consumes about 40 percent of the Clarksville Square Shopping Center off Route 108, which also includes a free standing fast-food restaurant, car wash and bank, according to the landlord.
"It's a case of the right product, at the right place, at the right time," summed up Steve Breeden, partner at Ellicott City-based Security Development Corporation, which manages the center.
"People are becoming more and more health-conscious and more aware of their environment," Breeden said of the reason behind his tenants' success. "And Clarksville has the educated population and the incomes to support these businesses, which comprise a niche market."
Kaufman, a Rockville native, said he chose to locate in Clarksville 12 years ago because it was an underserved market that was developing, advice he got from local land-use attorney Richard B. Talkin, who is based in Columbia.
"When we first opened Great Sage, we used cheese and eggs because we were nervous about going full-on vegan out here," Kaufman said.
But by 2010, he said, their menu had become 97 percent vegan, so they decided to stop using animal products in recipes altogether. Although they initially worried that their decision might chase some customers away, business never slumped, he said.
In the July-August issue of "VegNews" magazine, Great Sage was evaluated in a regular dining feature called Vegan City Showdown, pitting Washington against Philadelphia. While giving the edge to Philly and noting that Great Sage isn't technically in D.C., writers judged the 45-minute drive "well worth it," and recommended the seitan Wellington, the tempeh bourguignon and the aforementioned chocolate lava cake.
That's not to say that Kaufman's personal preference for a vegan diet means he doesn't respect consumers' right to choose what they eat. Indeed, Roots Market sells meat, dairy and eggs from organic farmers who treat their animals humanely, he said.
Kirk Torpey of Catonsville said he and wife Claire shop at Roots Market weekly, considering it to be "their grocery store."
"We're very conscious of the food we buy," said Torpey, an eight-year customer who also eats at Great Sage. "A big thing we're concerned about is produce, because it can be so heavily laden with pesticides, and we prefer grass-fed beef. We strive to eat clean food because we know how bad things can be out there."
While researching factory farming for an ethics paper in college over 20 years ago, Kaufman thought he might score a few extra points with his vegetarian professor by giving up such foods as Twinkies and bacon during the two-month project.
What he didn't count on was his own strong reaction to learning how some farms operate as livestock factories, raising animals in confinement and under other adverse conditions.
He became a vegan practically on the spot — before it was hip, he says — coming at that swift decision from an animal rights perspective.
"It's a belief system that centers on a deep respect for all life forms," he said. "Vegans strive to reduce animal suffering and to reduce our carbon footprint on the planet."
A few years later, Kaufman and a girlfriend took a break from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he eventually earned a bachelor's degree in psychology, to see America by bike. After being treated with homegrown herbs for burns suffered in a bike crash during the four-month transcontinental trip, Kaufman had a second epiphany. He realized he wanted a career in natural foods.
After spending some time learning the ropes in Montgomery County, he and Cutler opened Roots with a handful of employees. Currently, Conscious Corner employs 110 people in its Clarksville enterprises and another 70 in satellite stores in Olney, Gaithersburg, Rockville and Pikesville.
Kaufman's strong desire to see everyone — customers and employees alike — incorporate ecological and social awareness into their individual food and lifestyle choices is what he says drives him, not the bottom line.
"We believe it's more prudent to spend more on our ingredients, more on our employees, and more to make food from scratch," than it is to stress profitability, he said.
He intends for his company's choices to send a message, he added.
"We are calling out to the customer base and asking: 'Are you interested in your dollars benefiting the planet, in the personal health of your family, in being altruistic?' " Kaufman said.
The name Conscious Corner, which appears on business cards but not store signs, was chosen to describe a philosophy of making conscious choices.
"This is an insane business that appeals to a small group of people," Kaufman said. "But people tell us we've made it so they can't possibly move away with all these eco-conscious stores clustered in one place."
The company's mission statement has served as its "guiding principle and unifying point" throughout its dozen years of expansion, he said.
"We work to achieve financial success in order to serve our mission in the local and global communities," he said, adding that one of his "great joys" is personally writing out checks to the small businesses, local farmers and artisans who comprise his vendors.
"Every generation is expanding its world view. In 50 to 100 years, the vast majority of people will be vegan" as people become less desensitized to the world around them, Kaufman predicts.
"Consciousness grows with every generation and society is heading more toward a 'we' than an 'us and them' mentality," he said. "It's important to me to be on the right side of history."