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.