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Spotlight Iowa City: Keeping life and meals local and vegan at Red Avocado

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | FEBRUARY 24, 2010 7:30 AM

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In Dave Burt’s opinion, the vegan diet can greatly affect the world.

Burt, a native of Scotland, first came to the United States 20 years ago as a student. He always had an interest in cooking, and in 1999 he opened the Red Avocado, 521 E. Washington St.

While it started as a vegetarian restaurant, a few years later, it became fully vegan. By his estimation, it is one of the few restaurants in the country that exclusively serves organic vegan meals.

“The health aspect originally did it,” he said about his decision to become a vegan while he ate lunch by the Red Avocado’s front entrance. That choice then led him to find other political and social benefits of veganism.

The restaurateur said he didn’t miss eating meat when he converted to veganism, but the social aspect of the decision was hard.

“People get mad that you don’t eat meat at all,” the 41-year-old said, thanking customers as they left the restaurant. “It’s more that social part that’s hard.”

More important than the vegan and organic aspects of his restaurant, Burt said, is that it tries to buy all of its ingredients locally. Burt estimates that, depending on the season, the Red Avocado purchases as much as 80 percent of its food locally.

“It’s just so obvious,” he said about the social and economic benefits of buying locally.

A sense of being involved locally is at the heart of his work at the Red Avocado even outside of the food. He said the restaurant also participates in and holds local fundraisers and that, even though it is doing well, he doesn’t intend to do anything like offer franchises.

In cooking vegan food there was also a challenge for Burt, who said he had grown tired of cooking and eating dishes with meat and dairy products.

“It’s really amazing how little you get restricted by cutting meat out,” he said. “In fact, a lot of flavors are opened up.”

Ofer Sivan, a co-owner of Oasis, said Burt’s passion for food rubs off on friends, family, and the people for whom he cooks.

The 31-year-old once held a party at his house, during which one of Burt’s sons began to play cook with pots and pans. When Sivan asked the child what he was cooking, he responded edamame, tofu, rosemary, and other ingredients that most 2-year-olds wouldn’t know.

“He’s almost spiritual about it,” Sivan said about Burt’s connection with food. Burt believes “the vibe of the person making the food goes into the food and into the stomach of the person who’s eating,” Sivan said.

While he still enjoys cooking, Burt no longer cooks at the Red Avocado; instead, he focuses on the day-to-day business of running the restaurant.

“There is never a moment that goes by when the wheels in his head are at rest,” said Katy Coonfield, a co-owner of the Red Avocado. “As a business partner, he enjoys focusing on the details while also maintaining his vision of the big picture.”

His business acumen doesn’t just benefit the Red Avocado, however. Sivan said that when he and his partner were opening Oasis in October 2004, Burt was “very supportive and giving with information and advice.”

Burt said taking on a business-only position at the restaurant has pared down his work schedule to around 30 hours a week.

This allows him to spend more time with his family and friends, which does, after all, fulfill one of his life and business philosophies: keeping it local.


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