W hen one walks into Pingala Café’s light-filled space in Burlington’s historic Chace Mill, one is greeted with rich, oxygen-filled air from the bounty of hanging plants, gorgeous views of the Winooski River, where “The Dancer” sculpture (created by local artist Tyler Vendituoli from cutlery) is perched seemingly precariously atop a retaining wall, and funky decor salvaged or built by owner Trevor Sullivan. A stunning mural, created by artist Tara Goreau, offers a colorful display of Vermont’s expansive food system. Rather than list where every item originates on Sullivan’s menu, the mural serves as a visual reminder of where the food is grown.
It is often said that if you want to find out what you are destined to do in life, look no further than what you loved doing as a child. Perhaps this doesn’t resonate with everyone, but in Sullivan’s case, the adage rings true. When he was in sixth or seventh grade, one of his teachers tasked his class with creating their own fictional business cards. Sullivan came up with a food business called “Hot off the Grill.” Now 27, Sullivan has a real food business card that reads “owner, chef, visionary.”
Sullivan didn’t grow up in a vegan or vegetarian household, but he was always surrounded with great food prepared by his mom in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. She had a huge influence on him and was part of the impetus behind his enrolling in the food and beverage entrepreneurship program at Johnson & Wales University. After Sullivan received his degree, he returned home and entered Worcester State where he earned his BS in business. As he began searching for answers on what to do next, he hit Vermont’s Long Trail and hiked it in its entirety. It was during that time in nature that he fell in love with Vermont and realized with certainty that Burlington was where he wanted to be.
The next few years involved a series of jobs in the restaurant industry. With no culinary experience, he was hired by the Skinny Pancake in Burlington to spin crepes at their stand on Church Street, but
Sullivan wouldn’t stay in that role for long; within three years, he had become the kitchen manager. He followed this up with stints cooking at several fine dining restaurants including Church and Main, the Willard Street Inn and the Essex Resort and Spa.
It was at the Essex, where Sullivan was regularly tasked with breaking down whole animals for service, that he had an epiphany. He realized the process wasn’t resonating with him anymore. Food had become a product. Therefore, he began investigating the vegan lifestyle, contemplating the reasons why people choose to become vegan aside from a love and respect for animals. Sullivan delved into research and watched a slew of documentaries like Forks Over Knives and came up with three big reasons veganism is important: animal ethics, personal health and environmental health. These concepts would ultimately help inform his decision to launch Pingala Café.
After Sullivan left his job at the Essex and with no employment in sight that suited his revamped value system, he knew he needed to find a different career path. That’s when fate intervened.
Sullivan was attending a yoga class with his wife, Julia, at Laughing River Yoga, located in the Chace Mill, when he noticed the empty space next door. There was a rumor that a café would be entering the space, but that transaction fell through. Sullivan decided to approach the property management firm Redstone, the owner of the space, and pitch his café business plan. They loved it, the funding came together, and Pingala Café launched in February 2014.
The word “pingala” is Sanskrit for sun energy and life force. “Plant-based food needs sun to grow, and I always want the café to be bustling with life force,” Sullivan says.
And it is, particularly in the café’s tiny, 300- to 400-square-foot kitchen without a hood system. It is there that Sullivan and his team produce an impressive array of breakfast items, smoothies, small bites, salads and sandwiches; many are gluten-free as well as vegan. The broccoli bites, garlic and ginger-roasted florets served with buffalo tahini or Thai peanut sauce, are a consistent favorite. I’m also partial to the Gouda melt with tempeh sausage (pesto-roasted onion, tomato, spinach, cashew Gouda-style cheese on pressed millet bread). The counter area where one orders is stocked with incredibly delicious savory and sweet gluten-free treats from the Four Sisters Bakery, and TomGirl juice is also a staple in the café’s cooler.
So far, Sullivan’s mission of “acting locally and thinking globally” through his food has been met with great feedback from vegans and non-vegans alike. He has spent the past year fine-tuning his operation with the hope of making it a concept that could easily be popped into airports or skyscraper office buildings. Pingala had a presence at last summer’s Eat x NE festival in Burlington and will be at the ArtsRiot truck stop this year with their bike-pulled trailer, “Broccoli and Toast,” that will serve shareable, affordable items like the broccoli bites. “There’s no reason we can’t reinvent the concept of the food truck,” Sullivan adds.
But Sullivan’s innovative ideas don’t stop there: he is also considering the possibility of a second location in the area as well as a plant-based kitchen collective that would be a dedicated vegan space for local purveyors to produce their food items.
Sullivan, who has been vegan for three years now, stresses that his café concept isn’t about “fighting anything.” “I’m just leading by example. Be vegan because it’s the best thing for your health. What’s more liberating than being mindful of your diet?”
And, ultimately, Sullivan adds, “Our operation is a labor of love.”
Corey Burdick is a long-distance runner and feels it’s tough to find places to go out to eat that will provide the perfect blend of flavor, visual appeal and nutrition, but Pingala just gets it. She’s not vegan, but their menu has provided her with the inspiration to try cashew sour cream and take a class on making raw, vegan tacos.