Sewing seeds of success at Sunflower Café

Friday, January 30, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 5

Dreams, cancer, tofu, death, love, loyalty and the quest for good gut bacteria are parts of the story of the hidden little gem that is the Sunflower Café.

Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban are among those who have discovered this comfy vegetarian outpost, tucked behind the Twelve Oaks Motel in Berry Hill, where Chef Brian Storrs and his sister, Kimber Saunders, proselytize healthy eating.

Hell, LeAnn Rimes even “tweeted how much she enjoys our veggie burger,” says Brian. LeAnn’s beauty of body and voice perhaps speaks volumes about the quality of what’s being dished up by Brian and Kimber (with ample help of younger brothers and mom and dad, who have turned the siblings’ shot at their dreams into a loose-knit family affair).

“It’s all about having a healthy gut,” says Brian, describing what people are getting in his haven of tofu, kale and tempeh (aka fermented soy), which can be washed down by kombucha (fermented tea).

Brian pats his own stomach when describing how his menu offerings not only help digestion, they install “good bacteria” in diners’ bellies.

Course the celebs mentioned above and their everyday people peers don’t holler out orders for plates of bacteria – healthy or otherwise – when taking breaks from Nashville’s over-done greaseburger and shredded pig menus to enjoy the offerings of Brian and Head Chef Stephanie McKay (“She’s my right hand,” he says). Diners patiently graze along the hot-food line, picking out veggies scooped from pans of plenty.

“This is a dog-friendly and kid-friendly place,” says Chef Brian, taking a modest break from his robust greeting and mushroom-cap-cooking duties to talk about the Sunflower Vegetarian Café, a happy exclamation point on the transition Berry Hill is making from its historic success as a speed trap into being a place where people dine and otherwise go about busy lives.

“It’s kind of like a mixture of the crowd from The Gulch and of Music Row,” explains Brian, sitting on the back porch of the restaurant (the back faces the street, by the way … appropriate in this dining spot that is against-the-grain even while packing varieties of grain in meals.)

In case you are a curmudgeonly health-inspector: The dog-friendly parts of the Sunflower are not in the kitchen and dining areas but in the yard, on the back porch (that’s in the front) and on the front patio (that’s in the back, by the parking lot that’s reached by bouncing down a narrow asphalt path from Azalea Place and past the restaurant).

Roxy or Fido can’t be inside begging nibbles of Thai Ginger Tofu, Vegan Southern Barbecue or Bean of the Day concoctions. (Course there aren’t too many vegetarian dogs; fewer-still canine vegans.)

“If you had told me five years ago that I’d be running a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, I would have said ‘there is no way in hell,’” says Brian, 40, who describes his appearance as that of a classic TV chef: “You know, when you turn on the Food Network or other cooking shows and you see the chef is a guy with tattoos” covering a piercing-punctuated body.

His partner in this venture is little sister Kimber, 38, who on this unsettlingly mild January day is taking care of business in the office. Somebody’s got to make sure there is adequate kale, quinoa and all-natural cheese available for big brother and Stephanie to build their masterpieces.

As much as Brian appears the part of TV chef, sis Kimber “has the classic pony-tail of a professional dietitian,” according to her brother. “That’s what she got her master’s degree in. She’s very knowledgeable and well spoken.

“When you come in and see the two of us, it’s a fun combination of looks, attitude and spirit,” says Brian, pausing to ask a woman at the nearest porch table how she is enjoying her sesame kale salad, arugula burger or other veggie entrée.

“You’ll see Kimber here with a smile, while I crack up,” says bearded Brian, with a laugh that’s hardly half-baked. “We are yin and yang working together.”

Siblings Kimber Sanders and Brian Storrs, owners of Sunflower Café, are selling a philosophy “based on real, homemade food, bringing it to the public in a very local and nutritious style.”

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Not all of the customers come by car. Musicians, luthiers, masterers and their like simply walk down the hill after emerging from studios inside the converted cottages that line the Mayberry-ish streets of Berry Hill’s alternative Music Row.

There are no mammoth statues of nudes decorating this less-celebrated Music Row, though. Only the occasional yard sign like the one advertising folks to “Write Off the Row: Book a Room and Write a Hit.”

And then there are those mammoth wooden sunflowers facing Azalea that tell veggie-famished folks this is the place where Brian and Kimber are not only fulfilling their own dreams but those of the late Gabrielle Mittelstaedt and her friend Laura Yazdian, who opened the Sunflower in October 2012.

“Our philosophies were based on real, homemade food, bringing it to the public in a very local and nutritious style,” says Laura. “We both had a passion to open a new restaurant. People connected us, and within a few weeks, we decided to open a restaurant together.

“Gabrielle was at the cutting-edge of vegetarian food in Nashville,” recalls Laura. “We just wanted to get back to the basics of food.”

A vegetarian restaurant – with its agave-sweetened soda on tap and coconut water in waxed milk cartons – would have been at home in self-proclaimed hipster locales like The Gulch, 12 South or Five Points.

However, when they founded the restaurant 2½ years ago, Gabrielle and Laura wanted to carve out territory in a neighborhood on the brink.

“We looked around at different locations,” Laura explains. They knew they’d discovered “home” when they reached a former Mexican grill on Azalea.

“It had some character to it. The place looked like a little house.” This soon-to-be residence of vegetarian hopes and dreams was remodeled dramatically by the new owners.

And it was in Berry Hill, the island of a city surrounded by Nashville that had yet to become a trendy place to live and do business. The rapid pace of change is apparent in the sparkling new urban residences and restaurants sprouting on Eighth Avenue.

“We thought Berry Hill had a lot of personality, a lot of character and it fit the personality of our restaurant. We thought it would be a good place to be,” adds Laura, happily remembering the passion she and Gabrielle had for opening this business and growing with the area.

“We spent about nine months building and planning, so, in all, it took about a year to get the restaurant off the ground.”

When the Sunflower opened in October of 2012, it was the hard-earned result of Laura’s and Gabrielle’s dreams. Their glow of accomplishment lasted just three months, though, because Gabrielle was diagnosed with a rare cancer and had to hang up her apron to focus all energies on what was a losing fight for life.

Laura, in part inspired by “the light” her late business partner cast, “wasn’t going to give up, no way. We had put our heart and soul into this place. I always wanted to do it with Gabrielle and I was sad, but I had no intentions of giving up.”

Storrs, whoi worked as a chef at the Sunflower, and his sister bought the café after one of the original owners, Gabrielle Mittelstaedt, was diagnosed with cancer.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

But her own circumstances – it’s hard for the mother of two young children to run a restaurant by herself – left a door-crack’s possibility of selling the restaurant if she could find someone she could trust to carry forward the mission she shared with her late partner Gabrielle.

Brian, who had cheffed at Sunflower, and his businesslike sister provided the solution.

“You share the same dreams we share,” he told Laura. “We do not want to turn this over to someone who will turn it into a fried chicken place.”

He smiles. “We had the same viewpoint, same desire to share health as Laura had. So we took the torch” during a single shift change and began trying to nurture Laura’s and Gabrielle’s dream.

“We never closed. We kept the same employees. We wanted to keep that consistency people have come to expect,” Brian says.

He and his sister entered the fray with the goal of keeping the growing clientele happy while building upon the founders’ vision. “We thought that if we could make this happen and we could stay strong, we’d be doing something,” he explains. “There is a whole generation of vegetarians and vegans out there.”

As cars continue to clatter in from Azalea, past the back of the restaurant (that really is out front) and park by the patio out front (which really is the building’s rear), Brian can’t help but grin.

“We are fighting for it,” he says. “We honestly believe this is the way to eat … We’re steady and every day our business is a little better. I’m not driving a Mercedes. Maybe one day I’ll drive a Prius, though.”

Berry Hill’s increasing mercantile, residential and guitar-slinger bustle is heartening, because it means more folks in the neighborhood to seek out healthy eating options.

For example, on this near-balmy day, Laura Kelley, 23, perches prettily on a pew-like bench by the front door, awaiting someone else “in the music business,” so they can have a veggie-fueled meeting.

“I come here once or twice a month because there are not a lot of healthy options in Nashville. I don’t eat out a lot, but this is one of the places I come,” says the young woman, who does chew on meat in her spare time.

She’s just the type of person Brian describes as he watches the Sunflower’s growth. “Once we’re discovered and people come in here and eat, they say ‘we will be back.’” They don’t lie.

Promoting healthy eating and making a living at it is the perfect life’s goal for Brian and his sister. “It’s kind of in our blood to have a cause,” he says.

The best part of his day “is seeing the excitement in people when they come in here and see all the vegan options,” Brian says, noting his best sellers are the beet-and-carrot-based veggie burgers, topped in eight gourmet fashions.

He ruminates momentarily on tofu and on the benefits of various degrees of food fermentation and good bacteria. “It’s all about the healthy gut,” he says, before admitting to his own conversion to this world.

“I used to love steak. I really did.”