Restaurant News & Reviews

Garden to Grill guru takes on plant-powered mission

Garden to Grill owner Rey Ortega photographed Wednesday, March 9, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif.
Garden to Grill owner Rey Ortega photographed Wednesday, March 9, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. Special to The Bee

Rey Ortega is trying to convert the grid.

The clean-eating vigilante has big plans for Garden to Grill on Sacramento’s K Street, where he’s attempting to sway customers away from animal products, one coconut chai muffin at a time.

Ortega, a 23-year vegan and longtime pastry maker, opened the restaurant with partner Ron Russell four years ago, originally calling it Plum Cafe. Ortega nixed some menu items, brought in new ones and spiced up the classics. Today he feeds a steady stream of health-conscious eaters with sweet potato-and-avocado paninis, risotto burgers with tempeh bacon, soy chorizo breakfast burritos and more.

But it’s not a niche restaurant for vegan eaters anymore, said Ortega, wiping a brow after a recent lunch rush. He wagers that about 85 percent of his customers are omnivores trying something new.

As public concern grows about factory-farmed poultry, hormones in eggs, pesticides in corn and carcinogens in processed meats, more people seek healthier options, he said. His hope is to give it to them and nudge them toward a lifestyle change in the process.

“Now that people are becoming aware, they want a new choice,” he said. “The new choice is us. We are the future of food, there’s no doubt about it.”

While many of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork restaurants offer vegan and vegetarian entrees featuring well-prepared grains and seasonal produce, few experiment with meat alternatives such as tempeh, tofu, seitan and other soy substitutes. Ortega believes such protein sources are crucial to creating meals that have the appeal of meat dishes, sans the cholesterol.

A 2015 food and drink report from market research firm Mintel called meat alternatives a “strong potential market.” It found that almost a third of millennials consume a meat alternative product daily, with 70 percent consuming them at least a few times a week.

Plant-based meals are also trending in quick-service dining. A recent Thrillist roundup of small chains that could become “the next Chipotle” included the all-vegan Veggie Grill, as well as the vegan-inclusive LYFE Kitchen and the quinoa-focused Protein Bar.

Ortega, who is looking to move out of his rustic K street restaurant and into a smaller, more modern space in the next few months, said he’d like to move away from sit-down meals and toward the “scoop and serve” model.

“Because we’re downtown, we want to get people in and out as fast as we can, but have it vegan style,” he said.

Business is steady, he said, and he hopes to be able to increase serving capacity with several more locations in and around midtown.

In the meantime, Ortega and his staff will keep serving massive bowls of locally sourced salad and platters of crispy baked french fries in the main dining room, while selling decadent dairy- and gluten-free cookies at the front register. The baked goods come from Sun Flour Baking Co., also run by Ortega.

“Just knowing I’m putting healthier food in front of people, every single day, makes it worth it,” he said. “I try to empower anyone that comes in my path.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

Rey Ortega – Garden to Grill

What’s so special: As people move away from beef and pork in search of healthy alternatives, plant-based proteins such as tofu and tempeh take the stage.

Local connection: Garden to Grill, a bright-green eatery on K street in midtown, is one of the region’s go-to spots for creative, meatless meals and good-for-you pastries.

Expectations: Health-conscious, quick-service chains are expanding in California, and Garden to Grill plans to corner the market in Sacramento.

Quote: “Now that people are becoming aware, they want a new choice. The new choice is us. We are the future of food, there’s no doubt about it.”

Rey Ortega, owner of Garden to Grill