By Rebecca Cahilly-Taranto
City & Shore Fine Dining Writer
At lunchtime on any given weekday, the line at Green Bar & Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale extends to – and sometimes beyond – the door. Smiling kitchen staff in T-shirts labeled “Plant Dealer” bustle about as patrons eat in the bright dining room and orchid-adorned patio. A blend of lounge vibes on the sound system – ’70s funk with a dash of ’80s hair bands – announce to first timers that this is not your typical hard-core oregano-groovy vegan joint. Rather, Green Bar is something more approachable – a restaurant where a healthier diet is delicious, unique and open to all.
Just off Southeast 17th Street, bookended in a strip mall by Waxy O’Connor’s pub and Southport Coin Laundry, Green Bar is owned by husband and wife team Charles Grippo and Elena Pezzo. The path that led these former executives to dedicate their days to creating and serving vegan, organic, plant-based comfort food and creative juices and smoothies began with a phone call in 2011.
The call came with news no one is ever prepared to hear – certainly not at age 45. But when Charles heard that his friend Anthony had just suffered a debilitating stroke, he rushed to his side. The doctors prepared the family for the worst: Anthony, a 45-year-old father of three and successful businessman living a fast-paced lifestyle in Manhattan, might never recover. A decision to “pull the plug” looked imminent.
“He wasn’t living the best lifestyle and it just caught up with him,” Charles recalls. Also at the bedside was Anthony’s younger sister, Elena, a health coach who had left a high-powered job in search of a healthier lifestyle. With research and help from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in Manhattan, Elena began incorporating “super foods” into Anthony’s feeding tube. The doctors were skeptical but the family persisted.
Slowly, Anthony regained his hearing, then his eyesight. After five months, he went on to make a recovery.
Further convinced of the powers of certain foods in the diet, Charles and Elena – now inseparable – launched a vegan/smoothie/raw food truck business in Fort Lauderdale called Zenergy. Charles received his raw food certification and, in 2013, they sold the food truck and opened Green Bar.
“We started with a few salads, a burger, soups and some handheld items like avocado toast,” Charles says. Although many of the menu offerings are vegan, Charles is quick to make a distinction.
“We aren’t hard-core vegan, we are plant-based food,” he says. “We are the spot that people come to and say, ‘I really don’t know a lot about this but I want to learn more.’ Other people might come in and say, ‘I’m just really hungry and this is my option.’”
With no formal restaurant ownership experience, Charles considered his target audience when creating the menu. “I realized that by and large women would be open to the concept but I had to appeal to the guy’s perspective. I’m a demographic – I’ve been married, divorced, fat, skinny – I had to represent that demographic in a better light.”
Hearty menu items – like the GBK Burger Deluxe patty of brown rice, quinoa, chickpea, roasted veggies, sunflower seeds and garlic, or the occasional jack fruit pulled “pork” BBQ sandwich – satisfy bigger appetites with substance and flavor.
“I have to make sure the taste is on point,” Charles says. “I flavor my food a little more than the average person so that it’s enhanced and well balanced.”
Charles and Elena enjoy researching and getting creative with ingredients. “We find out what’s hot and what’s not,” he says. “There are foods that I like and I have to figure out how to make vegan. A lot of it is trial and error. If I like it, I ask my staff to try it; if they like it we do a trial with the customers; if they like it, it becomes a menu item.”
On the day Green Bar opened they served 84 people and have seen double-digit growth in sales each year since. It’s an all-around success story, right? Not so fast, says Charles, who faced his own wake-up call not too long ago.
“Here I was, running a healthy restaurant, and I began gaining weight.” One day, he turned quickly and felt a twinge in his back. The chiropractor showed him an X-ray with shadows in between the vertebrae. “He tells me I have degenerative bone disease and that I need to get back into the gym. For the past six years I had been so focused on the restaurant and had become out of balance.”
Charles says that moment was the proverbial knock at his door and that he’s now in the process of healing his core and watching his weight.
“This is no coincidence. It was a message to slow down. I’m the same as everyone else. I binge; I do unhealthy things. Every once in a while life taps you on the shoulder. If you don’t make the difficult decisions, life will make them for you.”
Today, four years on, the menu at Green Bar includes new items like craft beers, organic wines, local kombucha, a wide selection of high-end gluten-free bakery items and empanadas from Caribbean baker Jimme Matthews, coconut-water based ice cream from Australia, and a few “healthy cheats,” as Charles calls them.
“Our customers asked for heartier sides like French fries, so we now offer non-GMO fries fried in non-GMO oil. I know, it’s still a French fry but if that is the worst thing I do in the world…” he laughs. “Our next thing will be nutrition labels and calorie counts.”
When her brother Anthony was recovering from his stroke, Elena says she made an internal promise to dedicate her life to helping others and to sharing her knowledge of nutrition and a positive lifestyle. That ethos carries through every facet of Green Bar’s operations, where many staff members participate in a Gratitude Training program and the local community is represented at every turn, from the orchids on the tables to the murals on the walls.
A mural by billboard artist Lori Pratico encompasses the wall of the outdoor dining space. One panel is the phrase, #lifeisnow. “Life is now,” Charles says. “We keep waiting as if we have a life on reserve. You have to do it now.”
“Just one quick sample of ice cream and then we’ll let you go,” Charles hands a cup of creamy Cocowhip to a patron. Green Bar also seems to follow the mantra that life is too short to refuse ice cream. But, when it’s coconut-water based, organic, vegan, under-100-calorie, 97 percent fat free, refined-sugar-free and intolerance-friendly ice cream, who would?
“If someone asks, ‘What business are you in?’ I tell them we are a plant-based, dairy-free, animal-free restaurant,” he says. “If they ask, ‘What business are you really in?’ I’ll say, I’m in the business of getting people from all over the world together to share a good, healthy meal.”
Photos by Richard Taranto