By Leslie D. Rose
In the south, meat is everywhere. Everywhere, except MJ’s Café on Jefferson Highway.
Owner Maureen Joyce runs a very different operation. Her farm-to-table menu was designed to feature vegetarian and seafood items only, as a means to remove the alienation felt by people who choose plant-based diets.
Joyce, who was once a vegan herself, recalled how hard it was to order a meal at a restaurant without having to request special treatment, pay extra for substitutions or be forced to eat only salads. Keeping that in mind when she moved to Louisiana, she decided to eliminate that problem by opening her small lunch counter style café in 2011.
“People thought a mostly vegetarian place wouldn’t make it,” Joyce said. “We were one of the first and I felt like a real pioneer because everyone was so negative.”
Since its opening, the café serves approximately 40-50 customers daily during its lunch-only operations schedule. But before its proven success, Joyce said it wasn’t easy to get a bank loan to open the cafe. While lenders are typically tight-pocketed toward restaurant loans in the first place, Joyce recalled being laughed at several times when explaining her business plan of only pescetarian, vegetarian and vegan meal options.
Pescetarians follow seafood, dairy and plant-based diets; vegetarians eat dairy and plants, while vegans abstain from the use of animal products in food, and sometimes in general. MJ’s menu accommodates the desires of all three diets and specifically looks to use seasonal local or organic ingredients.
“Instead of having a vegan menu that’s based on soy and substitutions or heavily processed things, we keep the ingredients as whole as possible,” Joyce said.
Originally from Maryland and having lived in France and Italy, Joyce studied naturally created vegetarian options, many of which are reflected in her 15 item menu, including several seasonal soups of the day which always feature at least one completely vegan option.
“I’m not doing a lot of modification to these kinds of traditional recipes,” Joyce said. “These things were not created because vegan diets are now more popular – these things are being created because they tasted great this way. I think [the tastes] kind of helps pull people into trying this place because they have to come from the perspective of fresh, veggies and not a lot of processed ingredients.”
The café offers five salad selections including a special salad made from a collection of the current season’s veggies. There are seven sandwiches to choose from ranging from pescetarian to vegan, all made with the fresh ingredients to order. One of the unique sandwich choices is The Vegan, a black bean salad dressed in freshly-made guacamole, spinach and tomatoes grilled in between two slices of whole wheat bread. There’s also a heartier option for vegetarians called The Italian. That sandwich features smoked provolone cheese, pesto, tomatoes and romaine. And for the seafood lover, there’s The Louisianan – a spicy shrimp combination that includes pepper jack cheese, mayonnaise, peppers, tomatoes and organic baby greens served on wheat or French bread. Organic quiche and dessert options are also available and sandwiches can be ordered with the seasonal soups as a combo.
Joyce said of her main inspiration to open the café was her love for soup. As a vegetarian, she struggled to find restaurants serving soups not made with chicken stock, beef or bacon. Creating a non-animal ingredient broth or base is something in which she prides herself. She recalled thinking that while Baton Rouge is surrounded by so much crop land, no one in the area was really making vegetarian or vegan soup. She wrapped the whole concept of a lunch café around her special soup creations and so was born what’s been the only strong surviving vegan meal option in the Capital City.
“We have a bountiful harvest growing around us,” Joyce said. “We have a lot of great material to work with so I’m going to make – it’s a really simple idea, but I remembered it from France – a good couple of soups and maybe a quiche and maybe a sandwich and maybe a salad. We’re known here for our soups and that’s where we put a lot of our love.”