Matthew Engelhart uses mystic poet Rumi’s words—”Start some big foolish project like Noah”—to describe his organic vegan restaurant Café Gratitude. The first location in San Francisco’s Mission District has been thriving since it opened in 2004, and two new Gratitudes have popped up since, a second in San Francisco and another in North Berkeley. “My whole life, I’ve been interested in transformation and growth and development,” says Engelhart. “Vegetarianism, the environment, organic agriculture, sustainability, all these things are my passions.” Engelhart and his wife, Terces, decided to free their lives from the conventional strategies of life in contemporary US culture. They consciously gave up trying to get somewhere and instead surrendered to inner guidance. “We thought, what about living a life guided by our inner voice, our own inspiration? And our first thought was to design a board game.”
In 2002, the Engelharts created the Abounding River Game, which introduces people to the concept of “being abundance,” an ideology that Engelhart has been practicing since 1984. “It’s a practice in shifting from our human paradigm of scarcity—not enough love, not enough time, not enough money—to how full life is if we really get present.”
The beautifully designed game opens people up to a new perception of money and resources through inspirational exercises and embodies Engelhart’s philosophy: being at the source of unlimited supply. “This is hugely significant because it’s our inability to be fulfilled that drives the war machine and the ‘mine and yours’ machine,” he says.
The board game spawned offshoots like abundance training workshops—and eventually the restaurant. The Engleharts wanted a place where people could congregate and play the game.
“We thought, let’s have a gaming parlor! A place where we can serve some food and people can play,” says Engelhart. The idea took shape: a raw foods gaming parlor, and the first Café Gratitude was born. “When you surrender to inner guidance, that’s how it goes,” he says. “It’s not linear, and sometimes it doesn’t make any sense. Inspiration is sometimes not there one day and then it’s just a burning future that you can see.”
A visit to the café proves that this is no ordinary restaurant. Always packed with lively raw foodies and skeptics alike, the café’s philosophy reinforces the Engelharts’ vision of nourishing a thankful community. “The book and the board game and the workshop and ultimately the restaurant are all a practice in shifting our paradigm,” Engelhart says. “We are bringing the sacred — presence and oneness and love — to the commercial. Café Gratitude is a school of abundance and gratitude, and the tuition is paid in raw organic food.”
The items on the menu are thoughtfully prepared — and named — so patrons can practice being abundant. When you order a salad topped with brazil nut parmesan; you’ll say, “I am fulfilled.” You are “thankful” when you order Thai coconut soup. Other selections range from live pizza with pesto — “I am sensational” — to a Mediterranean plate with walnut-almond falafel and sprouted hummus — “I am flourishing.”
“We all have names for ourselves,” points out Engelhart. “We’re always calling ourselves something, whether we say, ‘I am shy, I am fat, I am lazy.’ We wanted to create the opportunity for people to practice empowerment since our mind perceives that what we tell ourselves is true. One of the beautiful things about being a human is that we’re not pre-programmed. We can shift and choose where we put our attention.”
Surrendering to inner guidance can bring on an abundance of challenges. Engelhart now finds himself dealing with over a hundred employees and the payroll that accompanies a large staff. “When you declare something like living of abundance, you’re always playing a bigger game, ” says Engelhart. “The universe tells you to step up. The ego and the identity always find scarcity, but if it wasn’t challenging, it would be hard for me to be holding trainings to help people shift their scarcity paradigm.”
There is no distinction between work and play in the traditional sense for Engelhart. “Any other way and I’d be suffering,” he says. “There is no work/play anymore. This is our mission; we are all surrendered to this. This is our nest egg on the line, and sometimes it’s scary and sometimes it’s empowering.”
But even inner guidance can use a business plan. When asked his long-term goals, he says, “I would love to create a really stable financial model for Café Gratitude in the Bay Area, with enough interest to attract investors who know how to grow a business so that we can steer the vision and not so much the details.”
And beyond that? “When you’re following inner guidance, you don’t know,” replies Engelhart, somewhat wistfully. With two sons in the business, there is a possibility of opening a Café Gratitude in LA. “We’re putting a little more focus on getting out there in the world,” he says, and it seems as if the universe is listening, as Engelhart has recently appeared on radio and TV.
In the meantime, the three cafes are bustling. “My life is just like anyone else’s,” he says. “This is just the game I’m playing.”