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Sunlight Café

Staying true to a simple vision

Sometimes life doesn't have to be complicated. In August of 1976, five women interested in eating healthy foods and being employed chose to open a vegetarian restaurant. 35 years later, the Sunlight Café is still offering tasty and healthy food in a casual environment.

Five friends—Joanne Drewsen, Judy Sheppard, Pam Kinnaird, Stephanie Franklin and Margaret Noone—felt there weren't enough places for people to get healthy, whole grain, high-quality vegetarian fare in Seattle. They wanted a place where they'd like to hang out, meet friends and eat the way they wanted. Since none of them were working at the time, they decided to open their own vegetarian restaurant. "Even nice restaurants didn't offer whole grain at that time," recalls Café owner Margaret Noone. "It wasn't all that easy to find product. Totally natural foods were rare. We found a company that offered what we wanted and still buy from them today. We just recently found another company in Portland."

Interest in natural foods was just beginning in the 70s. "There were just two small vegetarian restaurants in Seattle when we opened," says Margaret. "They closed shortly after we opened. PCC opened a year or two before us, but that was a store, not a restaurant. Things have changed so much since then. So many more people eat a vegetarian diet or focus on natural foods. Ethnic restaurants almost all offer a vegetarian selection. Vegan places have popped up and upscale places have come along, like Café Flora and Carmelita. The competition has really stiffened. But we feel we occupy a special niche—we're an every day, casual family place where people can eat and spend time reading or using the free Wi-Fi. We're always open except for five days: Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day."

Of the five original owners, only a few had actually worked at a restaurant and none had run a business. Margaret's background was working at the Harvard Exit Theater. "We just jumped off the cliff," she says. They were looking for space on Capitol Hill when a friend told them about a restaurant for sale in the Roosevelt District. Ironically, it was Hal's Diner, a burger joint. They bought the business and called it Sunlight Café. "It worked. We opened the doors and people steadily found us." In 1980, they lost their lease when the block was being redeveloped. They were ready to close. At the last minute, they found their current location just around the corner. At that time, three of the original women owners remained and they had added Scott Cossu and Joe Noone (Margaret's husband).

The new location was one side of what they have now. The Café had a front door and no alley access. "For a year, all deliveries had to come in the front door and all garbage had to go out the front door. We were very cramped. Then the space next door became available and we took that. It gave us a back door and added seating. It's hard to believe that expansion took place over 30 years ago!"

Their original vision is still what motivates them today. Many of their staples are organic; everything they offer is all natural, all whole. They serve no white flour, white rice or white sugar. There is no processed food anywhere.

Slow changes over the years have been due to food consciousness evolving. They've begun offering vegan and gluten-free items. "We've always used eggs and dairy," explains Margaret. "We don't want to change that, but do want to offer alternatives. For brunch, we substitute tofu for eggs." 30 years after their expansion, they've added beer and wine, both additive-free. A special food menu is only available during happy hour, along with reduced prices on beer and wine.

Sunlight Café
6403 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98115

Open daily, take out,
happy hour, free Wi-Fi

Other changes include Wi-Fi in the last few years and the occasional menu specials. "We have a big menu and there is a lot of prep. We have at least six cooks, two a day. Sometimes a cook gets inspired and creates something special. But we're not consistent. We're a little anarchistic in that way." Their lemon tahini salad dressing is so popular they began bottling it for customers to buy and take home. "Otherwise, we're a slow-changing place," laughs Margaret. "On the menu, we add this, drop that. We're casual, honest food. Nothing fancy, just simple." Over the years, all other owners have left for various reasons, leaving Margaret and Joe in sole charge. Staff changes are fairly infrequent, with most people staying for years. "Most of the old guard has gone, but even our younger people have been here for years. We've only hired one or two people in the last year," says Margaret. "We're a family and people stay."

One of the staff members, Cheryl Richards, planned on buying the Café from the Noones a few years ago. When the economy tanked and business slowed, the purchase was postponed. "For now, our plan is to continue work on the menu and get the business really going again so she can take over as planned." They're in the midst of painting the interior, which they do one night a week so as not to close during normal hours.

A new five-year lease was signed last April, so the longest-standing vegetarian restaurant in Seattle will continue to offer delicious food at a good value in a casual atmosphere. Grab a few friends and go!

Connie Adams/October 2011

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