Celebrating Community and Cornbread at Eugene’s Favorite Vegan Cafe
By Hannah Taub
Upon entering Cornbread Cafe, a cozy restaurant snuggled into a squat and unassuming corner lot near the Whitaker neighborhood in downtown Eugene, one immediately feels the down-to-earth comfort that only a local diner can offer. My friend and I utter simultaneous ‘oohs’ in reaction to the tempting pastry case we are greeted with and pick a cheery booth at the front of the restaurant to wait for one of the cafe’s co-owners, Sheree, to come join us.
As we jump into the interview questions I had prepared, I quickly realize that Cornbread Cafe is much more than a restaurant for Sheree. The project is rooted in her family history and represents her many personal values. Growing up, her grandmother was her inspiration, cooking mostly vegan food.
“Before, when I went out and ate, I just ate what was good, I did eat meat,” Sheree admits. She became vegan fifteen years ago, after trying vegetarianism for a year. At first, the diet was
just for health reasons. Then, “One day, it just clicked, what I am doing? This is disgusting!” says Sheree as she recalls her revelation leading her to fully embrace the vegan lifestyle.
She started reaching out to other families in Seattle, where she lived at the time, for ideas about how to feed a family with vegan recipes. A meal group that gathered for home-cooked potlucks, called the Seattle Veggie Families, was born. “Comfort food wasn’t out there; the casseroles, the fried chicken, grits, the whole thing, that’s comfort to a lot of people,” Sheree explains. But when she cooked Southern cuisine for the Veggie Families, it was a hit. So much so, in fact, that when she moved to Eugene and started a food cart, she crafted the menu around comfort cuisine. And thus, Cornbread Cafe was born.
“I was always going to open a restaurant, and I actively worked towards that goal,” Sheree says. So she started a successful food cart in Eugene, and then seven years ago, fate presented itself in the form of an old diner that sat shuttered and closed in the Whitaker.
As passionate as she is about food, our conversation quickly revealed that her enthusiasm extends to numerous other areas. “My lifelong goal is to be able to make a significant difference,” says Sheree. She excitedly describes to me her idea for a self-supporting homeless shelter like one called YouthCare (previously Orion Center) that her friends in Seattle are involved with. “I don’t want to be another band-aid for the homelessness issue,” Sheree insists.
Sheree’s commitment to social justice and community aid does not detract from her extreme passion for food. “I want everybody to think [the menu] is great, or we shouldn’t be putting it out,” Sheree says. She describes the menu as consisting primarily of “comfort food.”
“It’s all my taste because that’s my particular talent, being able to cook for the masses – the majority of people I’ve cooked for in my life have loved what I’ve made,” Sheree states confidently, admitting that she herself has yet to get sick of the grub offered at her restaurant. “I love it all, it’s my stuff,” she says with a shrug.
And what is her ‘stuff,’ you may ask? For starters, there is the Eugenewich. It’s the most popular menu item. “I guess it always will be,” Sheree said. According to their website, this “sammich,” which consists of fried tofu, vegan cheese, various veggies and something called “carrot bacon,” was featured on the television show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives! But her personal favorite is the Sammy I Ammy. “It’s our version of the McMuffin, and it’s delicious,” Sheree says with a grin. Picturing the layers of seitan sausage, daiya cheese, and eggfu (Cornbread’s special vegan omelette sheets) on a house-made whole grain english muffin was enough to convince me that she isn’t lying.
Sheree’s concept is on its way to becoming a franchise, something that she is looking forward to, in typical fashion, for not only the opportunities to experiment with a new space and cuisine, but also to be a helpful presence in her community. She is planning to open a new Cornbread Cafe in Springfield, complete with a bar and live music. This second location will be a slightly different concept from the original Cornbread Cafe – the specials will focus on Cajun and Creole flavors, and the roomier space will be able to accommodate large parties. However, Sheree is quick to assert, “It will still be Cornbread food!”
Sheree also has plans to open an Italian restaurant further down the road, a place where couples can have a more refined night out. She also dreams of opening a healthy restaurant. “People who are ill can come and eat it,” she envisions, but the food would of course still “taste really good and have a great texture.”
“It’s all there, it just keeps me awake at night,” she says of her various ideas for new restaurants and recipes. “I’d rather give [my idea] away [to another restaurateur] than not have it happen at all,” she says of these various concepts that are constantly bouncing around in her head.
“The bar will be exciting for vegans in particular,” Sheree explains. Often, vegans cannot be certain that all the various drinks on offer are made to fit their dietary restrictions at the Eugene site, but Sheree assures vegans can order without hesitation at the new Springfield location of Cornbread Cafe.
A few days after I visited her restaurant, I received an email from Sheree. In it, she urged the central importance of veganism in creating a sustainable world.
“Animal agriculture is one of the top leading causes of climate change,” she wrote. The email was a reminder for me of Sheree’s earnest dedication to making a difference, a rare motivation for a restaurateur.
“Not everybody’s gonna love everything we do here, but most people do,” Sheree says. The constant interruptions from regulars, poking their heads over our booth to say ‘hi’ to Sheree on their way out the door, are testaments to that fact.