My mom, Anne Eichelberger Tazewell, opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Norfolk ,Virginia in 1976 with 3 friends when she was 21 years old. She is an amazing cook and I had always heard about these times when I was growing up – the story was a foundational legend of our family. Anne’s first experience working in a natural foods kitchen was at The Golden Temple Conscious Cookery in Washington DC. She also did kundalini yoga at the 3HO ashram there! She never talked about kundalini yoga while I was growing up but I think it is so cool that she did it before I was even born. Another interesting thread is in the very name she chose for the restaurant– the word amrit has a deep meaning within the kundalini / Sikh path as well.
I am so excited to feature an interview I did with her about the experience of running a vegetarian natural foods cafe in 1970’s Virginia. One of my dreams is to follow in her footsteps and open a conscious vegetarian restaurant some day. This is the first in a series of interviews I am doing with all kinds of inspirational people I know and want to know. For so many reasons, my mom’s story of the Amrit is the most fitting way I can think of to kick things off.
Article from the Virginia Pilot – Click to image to enlarge
Can you tell me what you remember about your first job working at the Golden Temple restaurant in Washington DC? What year was it and what did you do there? How did you get the job?
It wasn’t a job, I actually was a volunteer in the restaurant’s kitchen. I am thinking it must have been the summer of 11th, maybe 12th grade so 1971 or 2. I found out about the Golden Temple restaurant from the kundalini yoga classes I was taking nearby. The restaurant was on Connecticut Ave, near Dupont Circle. The yoga classes were in a house near Dupont that was an ashram.
Are there any dishes you remember specifically from the Golden Temple?
What I remember is the lemon tahini salad dressing. The Golden Temple is where I learned how to make this dressing, which went on to be one of the most popular items at my own restaurant, the Amrit. The other delicious thing I remember are the the lassi drinks- lemon juice, yogurt and honey smoothies. We called them Krishna shakes at the Amrit. Maybe that’s what they called them at the Golden Temple.
When did you decide you wanted to open your own natural foods restaurant? Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for the name ?
I decided that I wanted to open a natural foods restaurant when my boyfriend Bill and I were in CA for at a month long retreat with Swami Muktananda at Humboldt State University. The idea struck me sitting at the small cafe at Muktananda’s ashram in Oakland. The ashram’s cafe was called the Amrit, ‘nectar of the Gods’. That’s where the inspiration for the name of our restaurant came from. This was the summer of 1975
The Amrit crew – from left to right, Vernon Herbert, my mom Anne Tazewell, Molly, Janice Herbert, Suzie Meredith Boykin and Bill Boykin
How long did you plan it and how much money did you have to invest?
Friends of Bill’s from NYC- Janice and Vernon- were married by Baba at the retreat. They wanted to join us in starting the restaurant so after the retreat we went our respective ways for a few months. Then in Spring 1976 we had opened the Amrit in Norfolk, VA, in a old building that had sat vacant for a few years. For decades the brick building on the corner of Princess Anne Rd and Colley Ave had been Master’s Drug Store, the place where your grandfather and father went for ice cream cones. Your grandfather lived right next door to Master’s when he was growing up and your Dad went to the soda fountain after his piano lessons. Of course I didn’t know any of that at the time.
Each of the 4 partners invested $2,500. We split the rent for the building with the Norfolk Food Coop who had renovated 1/2 the space, moving out of the basement of a nearby house to join us.
How long did it take to turn a profit?
Not sure what you mean by profit. We did not take out any loans to open the business and lived very simply. For a time your dad and I actually lived upstairs at the restaurant in what must have been originally a store room. The ” profit” is what we paid ourselves and as I recall it could vary from week to week. Some months it was pretty slim.
Article from the Virginia Pilot – Click to image to enlarge
What was the most challenging things about running the Amrit?
Personnel problems! Vernon ended up giving his partnership ( 1/4 share) to Stew, a recovering alcoholic, who had started with us as a dishwasher. This was OK until Stew fell off the wagon and I would get to the restaurant in the morning to prep for lunch and Stew would be passed out on the floor. The other vivid but troubling memory was another homeless guy (we offered free meals to homeless folks) – an older man who looked just like Baba’s guru – Nityananda. Sometimes we had ” Nityananda” do dishes for us and one day I walked in him to find him drinking the salad dressing from the gallon container in the kitchen that we stored in in.
What were the best parts about the experience?
The best part was meeting your dad. The Amrit had a policy of giving free food to musicians. He, as you know, is a musician and offered us an upright piano that we put in the dining area for different musicians to play in exchange for a free meal and tips. The rest is, as they say, history. I also loved bringing a few friends in after a late night out dancing and raiding the kitchen for left overs. We also had a few great parties at the restaurant with the Winged Heart band, the group your dad was playing in with your “Uncles” Steve Pague and Quint Lange. The Amrit was the the hub of a community. I met my closest, lifelong friends at the Amrit. One was Gazelle, Quint’s then girlfriend, your Godmother, the midwife that delivered you and also married you.
(left to right, click image to enlarge) Amrit ‘after hours’ – Anne and my dad’s cousin Tom Gardner // Amrit musician Woody Allen, employee Brian Rayner, and partner Bill Boykin
Do you have any specific memories of what it was like to introduce people to natural, vegetarian foods in the early 70s !?
I loved our customers, especially people that I didn’t expect would know about or like natural foods. Customers like Navy men, office secretaries, auctioneers and attorneys. All different kinds of people were interested and curious about what we were doing at the Amrit.
What were your favorite dishes on the menu?
I loved the Toastie and Eggplant Parmigiana. I also really loved the ice cream we sold. It was honey goats milk ice cream that we got in amazing flavors in 3 gallon tubs. Of course the Eichelberger (our veggie burger) was also a favorite. It was renamed the Tazberger when we got married.
Do you have any advice for wannabe natural foods restauranteurs? Like me for example?!
Know your partners really well! Start simple, build a following and then expand as demand grows.
Also be a good manager- have a good team you trust and then delegate so that you don’t burn out.
I would love to talk with you about this further… You and Jai Gopal would make excellent restaurant owners
YES! Great advice. Thanks so much Mom!