The earliest roots of Plum Bistro and Restaurant Group began with a family business started by Makini Howell's parents in the early 1970s, Howell made the decision that she wanted to turn their string of vegan restaurants into a Seattle brand. With a vegan café, market, sandwich shops, and restaurant under her belt, it may seem that her job is near complete, but she has more in store. With a food truck now in the works, Howell's Plum is well on its way to becoming for vegan cuisine what Molly Moon is to ice cream.
Photo courtesy of Makini Howell
You grew up as a vegan during a time when veganism wasn't very common or well understood. As a child, did you struggle with being different?
I think my restaurant is a reflection of how we were raised to be a part of the norm instead of us being raised to be different. It doesn't scream vegan when you walk in, and they're designed to be familiar like it's a part of everyday life. I didn't like being singled out as a kid.
[I'd] be with a group of friends and they'd be like, "Oh, well we can feed you some carrots." It's like, I don't just eat carrots! Providing more options make people feel less conspicuous, less like, "Oh, you're the vegan, you're the hard one to feed." They would say, "Oh, can you eat this? Can you eat that?" We used to get that a lot as kids.
With your growing brand that includes the restaurant, market, and café and more, what is your schedule like?
It's pretty packed. I work seven days a week. We're a pretty young business. Everyone that works with us is under 40. I'm probably the oldest. I have a couple of people who might beat me by a few months. We're all a young team so everybody is learning together. We have a really awesome group of people that are very willing to grow a different kind of business and a different brand, and to be a part of a community. Initially, it is going to take a lot of work, but I think it'll get a lot easier once it gets to the point where we're the established vegan brand of Seattle, and people know where to go if they want really great vegan food in Seattle. That's really my goal, to make us Seattle's vegan brand. I think we have great people who are helping us do that, but for the moment, I work seven days, usually 12 or 14 hour days.
Aside from your own restaurant, are there other restaurants around town that you enjoy?
There are definitely restaurants around town that I think are beautiful, and I would love to have dinner there, but I've been there for drinks. They don't have anything I can eat! One of my goals is definitely to create a community of chefs where I can give them ideas, just small things that'll help them make the vegans feel welcomed at the dinner table. There are such beautiful restaurants around the city, but you're usually only able to have the app, or to have to hold a lot of stuff. There are definitely chefs where, if you ask the chef to make something, they'll whip something up for you, but a lot of times, you're left eating the sides.
Congrats on surpassing your Kickstarter goal for the Plum food truck. What's next on that agenda?
Thank you very much! So, we closed with $29,926 on Friday, and Amazon holds the funds for two weeks. I'm not really sure why, but that's their policy. Somewhere around the first week of December, they will actually fund us. From there, we will get the truck up and inspected by the Department of Labor and Industry, get it wrapped, get the engine checked, get the steering wheel tightened up, buy the equipment for it, create the menu, and that's the truck. That'll take us about 6 to 8 weeks to do, depending on the Health Department and Labor and Industry. They have the longest lead time.
You've been outspoken about your support for Obama. How did you celebrate his re-election?
You've been vocal about social issues, like your support of paid sick leave and worker's rights. Did you have any hesitations about having your beliefs be tied so closely to your business, or is it intended for your beliefs to shape the business?
I've always been an Obama supporter. I don't think the sick leave is partisan. I just think it's a good thing to do. We all need people to work for us and help build our business. I think that's a nice thing to do. It seems like people appreciate us for it because we do stand up for worker's rights. We support things that are fair, like marriage equality and paid sick leave, things that shouldn't be partisan. My personal support for Obama doesn't really come in to play as much as just, we like to support things that are fair. I think that our community supports that, so they support us.
We're part of a family business. It's been in business since the 70s. I think we started to brand ourselves as that kind of company at a time when people were looking for businesses like that. People were looking for companies that aren't just people who would write them a paycheck, but one that cares about the whole person and also cares about the community. We've had a tremendous amount of support in becoming who we want to be.