Great Sage restaurant grew from Roots Market


July 01, 2004|By Carole W. McShane | Carole W. McShane,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JODY CUTLER sat amid a jumble of boxes, tables and chairs while workers peppered her with questions and vendors asked directions. It was 11 days before the opening of Great Sage, a vegetarian restaurant in Clarksville.

"I liken it to doing a production," said the former drama instructor. "You spend your whole rehearsal period thinking, `This is never going to happen.' And you work around the clock and it comes out, and it's marvelous."

Together with business partners Jeff Kaufman and his wife, Holly Kaufman, Cutler and a newly hired staff opened Great Sage on June 22.

The restaurant is the third collaborative business endeavor for Cutler, 36, and Jeff Kaufman, 35. The first was Roots Market, which opened in 2000; the second was Nest, a gift shop that opened in 2003. All three businesses are in Clarksville Square.

Jeff Kaufman, a Clarksville resident, became a vegetarian 14 years ago after writing a paper on factory farming for an ethics class at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. For Kaufman, the major issue in his decision to become a vegetarian was not about killing animals.

"To me, that's the most minor issue," he said. "The major issue is the amount of suffering these animals go through ... the years of suffering in cramped quarters [where] a lot of them can't move, foods they are fed and the amount of hormones and antibiotics they are pumped up with. When I finished that paper, there was no turning back."

Before graduating, Kaufman cycled across the United States, on the way meeting people involved in natural healing. He gained experience in the natural foods industry while working at Living Foods, an independent natural foods market in Berkeley, Calif.

Cutler grew up in New York City where her father, Artie Cutler, owned and operated 21 restaurants. She graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in music and for six years, taught theater and vocal music at the Barrie School in Silver Spring.

Cutler met Kaufman in 1996 at My Organic Market (MOM) in Rockville, where both had jobs.

At MOM, Cutler and Kaufman noticed customers from the Columbia area who brought coolers to fill with organic food. They suspected that Howard County was underserved in the natural foods market, and research proved them right. Sales at Roots Market have grown more than 20 percent each year since opening.

But Cutler says Roots had one drawback.

"Our biggest weakness at Roots since day one has been that we have no kitchen," she said. "We made that decision intentionally when we opened. We couldn't afford to install a kitchen ... so we always thought if Donna's [restaurant] ever goes out, there's a kitchen and it's right next door."

Donna's closed in February and in March, the Kaufmans and Cutler began preparing the empty space for Great Sage. "We decided to go whole hog - whole tofu!" Cutler said.

"We opened this place because there is no place for vegetarians, vegans, essentially in the whole Baltimore-D.C. area," Jeff Kaufman said. "There is nothing that is not ethnic - there's Indian, there's Chinese. As far as we know, there's nobody doing eclectic vegetarian with some international things along with some American themes."

Great Sage's owners hope the restaurant will also be a resource for people with allergies or on special diets.

People are "anticipating that we're going to have a lot of things for people who have difficulty eating out," said Holly Kaufman, the restaurant's general manager. "We are training our staff very thoroughly to know all the ingredients so that we can help people who may have casein resistance or gluten or yeast [intolerance]."

Dr. Pamela Compart, a Columbia pediatrician, cares for many such people. "I think that the restaurant is a great addition because the food, to me, is very thoughtfully prepared. It's organic; there are vegan options. So you can get dairy-free, good-quality foods," she said. "Even if it was something as simple as a peanut-butter sandwich on rice bread, a parent could come out and have a great meal for themselves, and the child could have a peanut-butter sandwich and be happy."

"I am more than excited," said Clarksville resident Ellen Sosinski. "They do such a good job with everything - I mean Roots and Nest - and now this restaurant. They just have such a nice touch about how they present things and the kinds of products that they offer. I think they are very talented young people, and I think they are a real asset to our community."

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