COMPLIMENTS OF CHRIS BERTKE
After a successful run, Chris Bertke's Vegan Deli & Butcher shop is now closed.
This past weekend, lines estimated at nearly a quarter-mile long snaked around the grounds outside the Vegan Deli & Butcher (524 South Main Street, St. Charles; 636-757-3349)
, as eager patrons waited for plant-based versions of their Taco Bell favorites. Then-chef Chris Bertke had spent the week prior preparing for the "Taco Hell" pop-up, cooking up dishes like "Cheesy Gordita Crunches" and "Nachos Hell Grande" in anticipation of the crowds.
And they came in full force — fuller than he could have imagined. That's why it caught everyone off guard when, after Sunday's service, he was informed that the Vegan Deli & Butcher would be closing effective immediately, and that he and his kitchen crew were out of jobs.
"The owners wanted to go in a different direction," Bertke says. "No one really knows why this happened."
The owners in question are Heather and Jason Granger, also proprietors of the adjacent Peace, Love & Coffee. Since last summer, Bertke has been working alongside the husband and wife duo, helping them with the food component of their St. Charles coffee shop. In the process, Bertke has become a culinary phenom in the vegan community, drawing a loyal following for his talent in preparing plant-based cuisine.
However, as Bertke explains, personality differences arose between he and the Grangers over the course of their time working together, making the news that they were shutting down the Vegan Deli & Butcher shocking, but in some ways, inevitable.
"They are hippies, and I'm an old punk rocker," Bertke says, making light of the situation. "Hippies and punks never get along. I think it was our personalities clashing. My intense personality clashed with theirs."
According to Jason Granger, he and Heather were thrilled to have a chef of Bertke's caliber working with them. However, they felt that it was time for the three to part ways so they could both carry out different visions for their businesses.
"Chris has been fantastic; he has almost this celebrity status," Granger says. "People came in from Michigan, Kansas and all over to see us, so it's very humbling, but the fact of the matter is it's such a small place and a tiny kitchen. It just comes down to the fact that Chris needs his own place to grow and get bigger."
Bertke hopes that is the case. For now, he says that the Vegan Deli & Butcher concept is 100 percent shut down, unless he decides to resurrect it. He hasn't ruled that out, noting that he has always loved the idea of a plant-based butcher shop. However, he has no immediate plans to open a place of his own and is excited to do pop-ups as he figures out his next steps; his first one, a pizza pop-up, is happening this Saturday at Frida's in University City. He's also in talks with a wholesaler to produce his vegan meats, though he admits the idea of owning his own restaurant is more attractive.
"Wholesale would be fun, but I get bored easily," Bertke says. "I wouldn't have to answer to anyone, and I could do whatever I want. I like to keep food fun, dangerous, different and new. In the long run, I think my goal is to have a place of my own."
For their part, the Grangers plan to reinvent the food component of Peace, Love & Coffee. Drawing upon Heather's Italian heritage, they want to do plant-based versions of Italian favorites, and are taking the next few weeks to develop recipes and get their feet underneath them after the change.
"We're going to pare things down and make it more of a cafe with soups, salads and sandwiches — all vegan of course," Granger says. "The plan is for us to get back to our original vision for what we wanted the coffee shop to be. Chris really showed us we can do so much with vegan food. We learned so much from him."
For his part, Bertke is not dwelling on the situation and is instead looking forward to the future. He's excited about the calls of support he's received, including words of encouragement, offers to invest, and even a message from a woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who suggested he take over her restaurant, free of charge, as she traveled out of town to open another business. For him, it's proof that what he does has an impact, and he's eager to keep that going.
"It's going to work out," Bertke says. "I'm not going to say shit happens for a reason, because I don't believe in that, but I'm going to land on my feet, keep doing pop-ups and take it day by day."
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