Tag Archives: Native Foods

My love-mildannoyance relationship with Native Foods

21 Oct


I have a fondness for Native Foods. When I first went vegan a little over two years ago, and I didn’t really know what to do or what to eat, it turned out that by chance (as opposed to intention) there was a Native Foods not far me. I must have walked past the Native Foods in Westwood Village eighty-three times without ever going in or realizing it was vegan. But back then I really kinda sorta didn’t know what vegan even was.

So when I entered for the first time as a NEW VEGAN and didn’t know what I was doing, I really appreciated how friendly and helpful everyone there was. And it didn’t hurt that the food was so good.

Over time, I became a regular there, and even when Native Foods opened a bigger, nicer space in Culver City, which wasn’t all that much further from my place, I continued to go to the one in Westwood. Now part of the reason, mind you, is that the Culver City location has always been very poorly run. It’s the highest-grossing Native Foods spot, and they have a constant stream of customers, especially at lunch when the line is often out the door and onto the street, and they simply can’t handle it.

Mistakes happen frequently when you eat there, but worse, much worse, is when you try to order something to go. Every time, and I’m not exaggerating, every single time I have called in a pickup order, and I have done this well over a dozen times, something was wrong. Every time! It could range from something as small as the dressing for the salad being left out of the bag to entire entrees that were paid for not being in the bag when I got home. And often, there was more than one screw up. To the point that I gave up and would only use the Westwood spot, where I can not recall them ever making a mistake.

And then.

Well, about six months ago Native Foods finally moved out of their odd, tight space into a brand new, much bigger location next door. Way more tables, way bigger kitchen, a much more pleasant space. And at first things were great. Bosses were around, lots of managers always working, things went smoothly for the most part.

But now, six months later, I’m sorry to say, the place has been Culverized. Almost every time I go there, something goes wrong. I should have realized there were problems when they left the “We Open to the Public May 1st” sign in the front window for more than two months. How did the managers walk past this sign every day and not realize what it said and not do anything about it? It was only after I tweeted about it on July 13th that it came down.

Bone Chilling Chili Cheeseburger

This weekend I went in for the Bone Chilling Chili Cheeseburger special. And things did not go well. For starters, there was a line to the door on a Saturday night and only one register open. They have two registers at the front of this location and a third around to the side. But not since they first opened months ago have I ever seen more than one register staffed at a time. Lunch rush, dinner rush, there always seems to be only one register open. And it’s not like the place isn’t staffed. Last night for example, with a line to the door, a bunch of staffers were hanging out behind the counter joking with Adam the manager while the woman at the register struggled with a giant line. It was like the manager didn’t even notice. Then the staffers he was joking with went off to do their jobs and he pulled out his smartphone and hung out checking his email or something. It was unbelievable.

Then I tried to order the chili cheese fries and was told it was no longer available. Now you might remember, a few weeks ago, when Native Foods introduced their new menu items, they took the chili cheese fries off the menu. I watched one evening as a woman tried to order them only to be told by both the cashier and the manager that it wasn’t possible to get them, even though they said that they still had all the ingredients in house. So I tweeted about this, which led to a nice email from Native Foods in which they told me that customers would still be allowed to order the chili cheese fries, and that a memo was being sent to all Native Foods locations letting them know this, so that such a problem would never happen again. Until last night when I was told they were no longer available.

Another thing that happened last night was that I ordered a soup, the Moroccan Lentil, which is very good. However, when I order a hot bowl of soup in a restaurant, I do not want to eat it with a plastic spoon. But I had to, because I was told there were no metal spoons available, even though they did have metal forks and knives.

And one other thing I will mention about last night’s meal is that, while I’m usually very lenient with what gets called a “burger” in the vegan world, this was not something I would ever even imagine could be seen as a burger substitute.  Have you ever had, or seen, an Arby’s regular roast beef sandwich? It’s made of thin shavings of roast beef. That’s what this was like, thin shavings of seitan on a bun. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t particularly good either, but it certainly wasn’t anything I’d ever call a burger. And the garlic fries weren’t as good as they have been in the past.

I really miss the days when this Native Foods ran smoothly. Now it’s vegan roulette. I think they are expanding faster than they can handle it, and yet their new locations are bringing in so many people interested in this kind of food that if the problems cause people to walk out or never return, it doesn’t matter to them because there’s new people streaming in the next day anyway. But at some point the slow and bad service will come back to haunt them. And just to be clear, by bad service I don’t mean unfriendly service, since almost everyone there is always friendly, it’s just long lines and mistakes that I’m talking about.

Someone from Chicago needs to show up here, preferably on the sly, and take a look at the lines to the door, only one register open, the manager busy playing with his phone, and potential customers getting frustrated and leaving. Before the loyal customers decide to take a break, too.

So good even a meat-eater would hate it

3 Oct

In my review of Sage Vegan Bistro yesterday I mentioned that the food there is so delicious that even a meat-eater would love it. Then I quickly caught myself and realized who was I kidding? Because my experience has been that the only kind of meat-eaters who can like vegan food are the ones who already like it. In other words, I have learned after two years that I am not going to convince any meat eaters that this food is delicious, yet alone comparable to a meat meal or even merely “good.”

Unless a carny is already predisposed to work some vegan meals into their diet for health reasons, then their attitude is: Even if it’s good, why would I eat it when I could eat meat which I know would taste better.  Again, this isn’t all carnys. When I go to Native Foods or Veggie Grill, with their lines that are often out the door, I can see that most of their customers are not vegan or even vegetarian. Okay, I can’t really “see” that but I’ve asked muckety-mucks at both companies and have been told that something like 70 percent of their customers are not vegan nor vegetarian. I feel like once I was even told 90 percent. And that sounds right, especially because most of the people I see on line there are young. (Okay, young to me.) And by young I mean in their 20’s or early 30’s.

And I think this is a generational thing. People that age probably know someone who is vegan, and if not they certainly know what the word means. As opposed to people over 50 who mostly go “Huh? WHAT kind of diet are you on? Never heard of it.”

But I’m not talking about the meaters who are eating at Veggie Grill or Native Foods from time to time. I kind of put them in the “health reason” eaters I mentioned before. I’m talking about people who feel that vegan eating has nothing to offer them. Who feels it’s “all vegetables.” And who quite possibly are scared of vegetables, or who see them as something to eat on the side for nutritional reasons, but who never would see them as something capable of comprising a meal that would be fulfilling in the way a meat meal could be. Or as delicious.

Add to that group a subset who DON’T WANT a non-meat meal to be as good. Because then they’d really have to think about why they’re eating meat, when they know it’s not healthy for themselves nor good for the animals. And I guess at that point it’s back to what seems to be the basic purpose that vegans serve, which is to make people feel threatened. Okay, that’s not fair. They feel threatened AND guilty. Not that they’d ever admit that. They see it as we’re pushing an agenda on them.

If an animal-eater got invited to a pot luck and brought a fish dish, and a carny who hated fish saw the fish dish on the table, and asked what it was, and was told by the person who brought it that it’s a fish dish and the bringer went on and on about how much they love fish, the fish-hater would just be like: I don’t like fish and move on to something they liked. They wouldn’t feel threatened by it. They wouldn’t feel that the fish bringer was trying to push an agenda on them. Which makes me think that part of the problem is that people are afraid.

Afraid to confront what they’re doing, every day, a few times a day, and also afraid that if some vegan food was not only edible but even good or god forbid delicious, then they’d lose one of the main things they need to justify their behavior to themselves.

It’s kind of like the much-discussed “Yeah but I love cheese too much” crowd. How can vegetarians say that to vegans but then not understand the meaters who say “Yeah but I love meat too much.”

I have a friend who has been just fine about me becoming vegan. We still meet up at the places where we both can find something satisfying to eat. But at one point early in my veganism, before I knew how to deal with my carny friends now that I’d gone to the dark side, I suggested a vegetarian Mexican place near his house. This place is not vegan, mind you, it’s veg. You could still get cheese enchiladas, bean and cheese burritos, etc. Well, when I suggested it he got a pained look on his face and said, “I’ve been there before. There’s nothing for me to eat there.” Really? I go to your places all the time and find something I can eat. Can’t it work the other way around even once? What are you afraid of? I know you love pizza. I know you love Mexican food. Do you really need a piece of beef or pork or chicken in every single thing that you eat?

I think, though, that even more than being afraid they would find a vegan meal to be delicious is that they’re afraid it would be disgusting. They feel it would be so gross or so bland or so other that it would make them turn blue and puke. That it would be so vile as to not ever be worth taking a chance and uttering those words that I’m curious if other vegans ever hear from their carny friends: “Hey, let’s go to one of YOUR places! Take me to a vegan place that you love! Show me some vegan food that you think is great — I’m happy to give it a try!”

Now don’t get me wrong. I know some carnys who WILL happily go to a vegan place for a meal. And they are mostly women. The guy meaters I know, some of whom are VERY concerned with eating healthy, still want their plain piece of chicken, preferably grilled with the sauce on the side. It’s funny how many guys I know who, when I was a carny, would not want to go to certain restaurants with me because they’d given up red meat, only to be surprised that I leap-frogged past them into veganism, and now they don’t want to try a vegetarian place because it lacks their white-colored meat. They’ve gone from seeing themselves as a healthy eater and me as unhealthy, to seeing themselves as healthy and me as extreme.

Is this just MY sub-set of friends? Do people have very different experiences with the meaters in their lives? As Cafe Gratitude would say: I Am Curious.

It’s Sage Thyme

2 Oct

Sage Organic Vegan Bistro
1700 West Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90026
213.989.1718


It’s a lame headline. I know. And what’s worse is that a great restaurant like Sage deserves something better. Oh, well. They’ll have to settle for a rave review instead. I’ve been to Sage twice now. The first time was with the head of Supervegan’s L.A. office. We went crazy and ordered way too much food. Also known as just the right amount. And we loved almost all of it and wondered how neither of us had been there before. Then I went back this week with Ms. Insufferable and she loved it, too.

This place is crazy good. Is it the best vegan restaurant I’ve ever been to? Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve been anywhere better. I’d put it right up there with Fatty’s Cafe, the Cinnamon Snail truck, and Au Lac as my favorites. I like to think it’d be the kind of place that meat eaters would try and love, but by now I know better than that. Hey, that could be its own post! And in fact, it just might be tomorrow’s! I mean, hey, if I have to do this 20 times I’m gonna need things to write about.

What I do know is that before I went vegan, back when I was eating meat, if I had been brought here I would have loved it. And I love it that they are expanding to Culver City in the spring, complete with pizza and a beer garden, and they intend to stay open till 2 a.m.!

Classic Tempeh Burger

Okay, if you don’t live in SoCal you might not care about all that, but maybe you will care about the food. So let’s get to it! Ms. Insufferable and I split two burgers, and they were both good. One was their “Classic Tempeh Burger” which as you can see comes with a HUGE block of tempeh. This seems like maybe the equivalent of five or six of the tempeh patties they give you on a Native Foods Scorpion Burger! Just massive. And it had a bright, citrusy taste to it even though the menu description of lettuce, tomato, avocado, mayo, mustard and onion didn’t lead me to expect that type of taste.

Jamaican Jerk Burger

As good as this was, we both thought the “Jamaican Jerk Burger” was better. This was a soft-to-the-point-of-flimsy black bean and walnut burger, with “jerked portabella and leeks,” sliced mango, caramelized onions, and mango saffron aioli.

Buffalo Croquettes

We also got an appetizer, the “Buffalo Croquettes” — three falafel balls tossed in buffalo sauce atop sage polenta, crispy onions, arugula and creamy horseradish sauce. Of all the big ticket items I tried in my two visits to Sage, this might have been the item I liked least. Their falafel was a bit on the dry side and wasn’t nearly as good as Sunnin or Habayit, and I didn’t love the combination of the dry falafel with the dry polenta. But hey, at a place as good as Sage, I’m determined to eventually try everything.

And as good as the burgers were, I didn’t like them as much as some of the items I got on my first visit to sage, like the “Bistro Po’Boy Sandwich” or the “Pesto Croissant Club Sandwich” which were really terrific.

All in all, if you’re a SoCal vegan and have never been, I’d say it’s a must, and if you’re a non-SoCal vegan who ever swings through L.A., it should be high on the top of your hit list.

Native Foods Westwood you try a little harder?

18 Apr

Papered-over front window in Westwood.

I love Native Foods.

Wait, I should clarify. I love their food. And the people who work in their stores. And the fact that they’ve caught on with a non-vegan and non-vegetarian crowd and are showing people that vegan food can not only taste good but great.

Now the part I don’t love: this company has perhaps the worst customer service I have ever encountered from a business. Not at the stores. There the people are, for the most part, super friendly and helpful.

But have you ever tried to email them a question or concern? Quite possibly you just answered yes. Did you ever get a response to your email? Quite likely you just answered no.

What is with a company that puts an email address for customer service questions on their website and then doesn’t reply? Bizarre.

One manager told me that the company is only willing to pay one person to handle all the emails and that it’s too much for one person. Another manager at a different store told me the owner is very controlling and all emails are routed straight to him. Who knows? All I know is that the second I mentioned the word “email” to both of these managers their eyes rolled up in a way that let me know they’re well aware of the company’s huge customer service problem and have to listen to complaints about it from customers all day long. They both told me the same thing, which was basically: If you ever have a problem at a Native Foods please don’t try to email just come into the store and ask for a manager and we’ll try to make it right for you. Good advice.

And what does all this have to do with their Westwood location? Well, first of all, I’ve found that location to be the best run, have the friendliest staff, and be super-well managed.  Wish I could say the same for Culver City. *sigh*

So yesterday, wanting a Chicago Dip sandwich because I fear it might be gone come next week when I believe the new menu is set to debut, I drove over to Westwood Village. I then did the mandatory 15 minutes of circling before finding a spot. But hey, it’s worth it, because I love that sandwich!

I get out of my car, put my coins in the meter, and then start walking down the block. Step + anticipation, step + anticipation, step + anticipation. I’m almost there. Step + salivating anticipation. I’m there! I put my hand on the door handle and pull.

The door does not move.

It’s 6pm. I look around. My brain tells me to admit it to myself: they are closed.

Now a normal business would have a sign up on the door or window telling you why they’re closed during normal business hours, right? Especially a business that has a signholder attached to the wall right next to its front door. But that’s empty. Empty as in, someone took the time to remove the large menu that’s usually in said signholder but did not replace it with a sign of explanation. This is a bad sign.

Note the empty signholder to the right. The lack of a sign is not a good sign.

I try calling. You know, since a normal business would have an outgoing message telling you what’s going on. Ring Ring Ring. Hope fades to acceptance. Ring Ring Ring ring ring…

While I’m standing out front, for about two minutes, six — that’s right — six separate parties come by, try the door, look at each other surprised, look at me, exchange shrugs, and walk off.

Now if you patronize that location, you know they’ve been going through some changes. They’ve been renovating the space next door to become their new restaurant, and during this renovation they’ve stayed open, but have forced any diners wanting to eat there to consume their meal straight from a cardboard box. You can’t imagine how awkward and unpleasant it is to eat a hot meal from a cardboard box until you try it. It basically interferes with every biological pleasure receptor designed to make you enjoy a meal. With most companies I’d assume they’re forced to do it this way because of some arcane zoning rule or something. But with Native Foods you never know. Might just be a clueless owner or something.

The last time I ate there  — a couple of weeks ago — it looked like renovations for the new location were getting toward done. I was psyched. But mind you, still no signs up announcing an opening date, and of course nothing letting you know they’re going to shut down the existing restaurant for a period of time before the new one next door opens.  Yesterday I peeked through a hole in the plastic sheeting covering the inside of the window and it looks really close to done. Signs are up and everything. I even took a photo. It looks nice. With an upstairs dining area and all. Can’t wait. Really.

Through the looking glass.

So when I got home I checked their Twitter to see if there was any information on the Westwood location closing or opening. You know, because any normal company with a Twitter would use it for exactly that purpose. To let their customers know what’s going on. I searched back a month. Nothing.

Then I went to their website’s blog. Again, searched back a month. Nothing.

Finally, I looked at their “locations” page and lo and behold there it was: Currently Closed for Expansion/Remodel Re-opening May 1st

Perfect! Because that’s exactly where customers who have been to that store a hundred times would look for information for that store: at the place that tells them where the place they’ve been to a hundred times is located.

This is also a company that, keep in mind, asks for your email address in order to give you one of their Rewards Cards. And then you use your email to log into their website and check your points and rewards totals. But does this company ever then use your address to send  you updates and information about the company, you know, the way every other company in America does? Nope. And by the way, there’s even a box on the website that says: “Sign up for the newsletter” — I’ve entered my email address into that box a number of different times, even though they already had my email address. Did I ever once get a newsletter  — or ANY piece of email from them? Nope. *sigh*

Native Foods owner: you’ve got lightning in your hands. Your chain is expanding, thriving. Loosen the reins a little bit. Delegate more. Hire additional people to help you out. Do whatever you need to do in order to keep your customer service problems from cutting against the good will generated by your food and your staffers. Because most people only put up with bad customer service for so long before they go elsewhere. And these days, there are a lot more elsewheres opening up.

Eat peace.

Native Foods Cafe: Preview or trainee view?

29 Mar

When I was at Native Foods recently I picked up a take-out menu, and when I looked at it later I saw some odd scribbling on it. At first I just thought someone had written down what they were going to order, and then dumped it back into the menu bin after their purchase. But then I started to realize that it was a little too formal for that. Someone had gone through every item making notes. And I soon began to think that I’d either found something used to train their new employees, or more likely I had stumbled onto a preview of the upcoming menu.

Take a look. Tandoor Kabobs, which were a new item in January, are crossed out. In their place at the bottom, with what looks like a “new item” symbol, are Crab Cakes. Hmm. Then under pizzas, both current pizzas are crossed out, and next to what looks like another new item symbol, is a Remo Caesar Pizza. And it also looks like the Meatball Veggie pizza is making a comeback.

Then under Entree Salads, the new Greek Goddess is gone, and replaced by a Caesar Salad.

I’m onto something here, right?

Now comes the bad news, at least for me, if I’m right about what I found and how I’m reading it. It looks like the Gandhi Bowl is gonedi! Can it be? It’s crossed out and replaced by what looks to be a Red Curry Bowl with Tofu Steak. Say it ain’t so. And under Chef’s Favorites the Chicago Dip is gone! That wasn’t just one of the Chef’s Favorites, it was one of Insufferable Vegan’s Favorites! Please tell me this was simply a menu someone gave their child to draw on and not the radical earth-changing Rosetta Stone I fear it to be!

But not all the news is bad, at least for the purists. It looks like those people who were so distraught by the banishment of the Baja Fish Tacos and the Native Deli Reuben that they set up a Facebook page in protest are about to get their way because it looks like both are coming back, at the expense of the recently added Very Veggie Wrap and Caribbean Queen Burger, neither of which I will be particularly sad to say goodbye to.

And while I didn’t even bother to take a photo of the Desserts section on the back since it wasn’t marked up, the drink section seems to be adding a Mango Salsa Fresca.

So what do you think? Am I mistaken about what I found? Or is this the Native Foods Wormhole writ large, allowing us to bend space and step a few weeks ahead with eerie precision? Or did I drop a frozen Spring Wellington on my head and imagine the whole thing, which might be the only way to explain that previous sentence.  If only I had photos. Oh wait. I do. It’s real! Isn’t it?

Bring back the Gandhi Bowl!!!  Bring back the Chicago Dip!!!

Or better yet, don’t take them away in the first place!

Love ya, NFC!

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