Food Culture: GREEN PIONEERS
Finding Success in Fear and Healing
SAGE VEGAN BISTRO & SOW A HEART FARM
Interviewed, written & photographed by Denà Brummer
One thing is certain, Mollie Engelhart is a woman who wears many hats. A restaurateur and executive chef serving organic plant-based comfort food at her four locations across Los Angeles; a regenerative farmer growing clean food free of harmful pesticides; a board member of Kiss the Ground working to train farmers to reverse climate change; a movie producer; wife and mother of three. She proves the old adage: “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person”.
You name it and she has survived and learned from it. From failed business ventures, home foreclosures, to the sudden and untimely death of her business partner and best friend, Mollie has had a multitude of losses on her journey that have compelled her to approach fear and pain differently. It’s a positive relationship rooted in normalizing her setbacks, failures, losses and lessons so they become the transformative factors for her to ignite the change she wants to see in the world.
Mollie grew up on an organic 27-acre farm in upstate New York. As a kid, her free time was spent running around barefoot, covered in dirt, splashing the pond, and eating apples from her family orchards. There, her intrinsic love for healthy, organic food and diversity was nourished. But getting her own farm wasn’t easy as apple pie. It took Mollie six years, seven loan rejections, rock-solid stamina and resilience — before finding a property. She hit the jackpot when the owner offered to carry the loan on the property and this is the land that would become Sow a Heart farm.
So how does she do it all? Mollie will tell you that her real secret to success is facing fear.
What’s your secret for balancing everything on your plate as a mother, wife, and entrepreneur? MOLLIE: I fail all the time, but I am also learning. You have to be willing to experiment, fail, learn, repeat.
What has helped you be able to continuously rebound and not be consumed by your losses? MOLLIE: Growing up in New York, when I would come home from school super upset about something, my dad used to say, “Right now, in this moment, what is the problem?” The problem was never right at that moment. It was always in the future and in what I anticipated was going to happen in the future.
In business, when people don’t take the next step, they are in their own way. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to do. I trust that I’m being divinely guided and if it fails, there was a reason I had to do it. As human beings, we talk ourselves out of our divine intuition all the time.
Successful people make choices quickly, and they stick with them long enough to make them successful. People that are not successful, take a long time to make decisions and they quit pretty quickly.
When something is not working, it doesn’t mean you are failing. It’s just an opportunity to adjust.
When you learn from your mistakes, your mistakes are valuable. When you sweep them under the rug, you’re setting yourself up to make those mistakes again, or other mistakes that are going to be more detrimental. I learned some hard lessons early in life around making decisions based out of fear. Many of those decisions blew up pretty bad, and I realized that fear is never going to produce the results that you want it to.
Anything worth doing is scary. If you’re not scared, you’re not living. My parents raised me to believe that my thoughts, speech, beliefs, actions and attitudes were the only thing shaping my life.
Loss is tough, but losing a friend and business partner is a different type of loss that doesn’t go away overnight. How are you managing this loss and also honoring her memory? MOLLIE: Every time I make a bold choice or a choice that doesn’t have support, I am carrying on her memory. She always had my back no matter what. Having that type of backing made me strong enough to make decisions that are hard.
Mimi was committed to providing people of color with access to good and healthy food. And today, her memory is being honored in every location of Sage because our customer base is so diverse. When she was alive, veganism and healthy eating was less diverse and she used to say, “Build it and they will come.” And she was right. When she was sick in the hospital, I sent her a video of our Culver City location one evening because the dining room was predominately Black and she said, “See? I told you so.”
I honor her memory by creating organic plant-based food that is accessible to all different cultures.
What were the factors that led you to start your farm, Sow a Heart in 2018? MOLLIE: My brother Ryland told me to watch Graeme Sait’s TED Talk. And this was my “aha“ moment. It made me realize that there was a different possibility for a different kind of future, and I wanted to be a part of it. I began to dissect every part of my supply chain across multiple restaurants to understand the impact of each decision and identified where there was an opportunity to change it to be more local and regenerative.
I didn’t want to look at my grandchildren when the planet is burning down and we are eating fake food made with fake things and say, “Well, I always got the oat milk latte and drove a Tesla.” That’s not my legacy. I decided to do more, and I did it. I bought a farm.
I am one of those people who truly believes the best way to learn something is by doing it. We live in an age of research, R&D, googling and people get stuck because someone else wasn’t successful doing something. Ultimately, someone else’s mistakes are not yours. Until you have done something, you don’t know anything.
The best way to do something is to get started. We can talk all day about what food sovereignty would look like, what closing the loop would look like, but unless we try and make it happen it will never be realized.
Right now, you are the only restaurant in Los Angeles that is connected to a farm in a way that closes the loop. You are not only growing local organic food for your restaurant, but you are turning the scraps generated at the restaurant into compost gold with a closed-loop philosophy. How did you build the infrastructure for this business model? MOLLIE: It was a challenge getting people to be on board with my vision. It was hard to find people who subscribe to the same philosophy of farming as I do. I believe in the economy of abundance, where you leave something for the earth, you don’t pick every single fruit, you don’t scrape the ground bare. So finding people who wanted to farm the way I wanted to farm was and is still a challenge.
People used to drive by the farm and laugh at me. They didn’t believe in my vision and they didn’t think it was possible. Now, they drive by to see what I am working on next.
I am committed to not letting the biomass that we were creating in the restaurants end up in landfills. When I started Sage, I didn’t want anyone or anything to get hurt in the process. I am trying to create that same win, win, win scenario on my farm, where the earth is being tended to, where the farmers are taken care of, and the food being produced is organic and nutrient dense.
A huge part of this process is about getting my staff from the line cook to the farmer on the field to trust my idea.
Let’s talk about food and our food system. MOLLIE: Whether we are talking about food justice, food deserts, farmer’s rights, to conventionally grown food, it is all connected and it is a system that is not working. There is a healing and a return to nature that needs to happen for people to reconnect with their food. Before we talk about the problems and formulate the solutions, we have to heal first.
You are incredibly busy with your restaurants and your farm, what aspects of your career do you enjoy the most? MOLLIE: Reconnecting to nature and understanding how important soil is; the relationship between soil health and human health. Unfortunately, we don’t look at things from a systems perspective in America and we fail to see that a broken system will only produce broken people. Having a farm has made me realize that healthy soil is the key to healthy food and healthy people. Right now, our world is feeding people crap food, sprayed with chemicals and we are now fighting pandemics at every level and harming the environment at every turn. Being a farmer has shifted my views on so many things. These days we spend so much time looking down at our computer and our phones, and being a farmer has provided me the chance to look up and take in the greatness that the world has to offer. It’s profoundly rewarding to have my kids grow food on the farm, to grow food for my customers and to know that simple things like kale were grown by people that are happy, loved and not oppressed.
What I love about my job is having the opportunity to grow Oaxacan corn from my husband’s home country, Mexico, pick and harvest that corn with my children, and turn around and make tortillas and tamales that are sold in my restaurant. That’s what I love the most.
Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.