Vegan foodies have a new place to check out close to downtown Lakeland: Vegetation Cafe and Kitchen at 1437 E. Gary Road.
Rima Schillinger, 56, opened the cafe on April 15. It was a big leap, after several years of operating out of Catapult and building a customer base by selling food at Lakeland’s Downtown Farmers Curb Market.
Schillinger designed the cozy Bohemian interior herself, with its warm wood floors, deep purple accent walls, and eclectic blend of art, textiles and books. It’s a comforting space that invites patrons to relax and stay a while.
The former stay-at-home mom and marriage and family therapist says she went vegan seven years ago and now wants to help others live healthier lifestyles.
“There are not many healthful options available if you’d like to eat out, or grab something that’s ready to eat. I enjoy cooking and felt I could give people healthy and nutritious options,” said Schillinger.
The plant-based cafe and kitchen is open to the public Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The rest of the week she and her staff are busy preparing meals.
“Our customers have been incredibly gracious, supportive, and kind. We see many faces return every week and (we) are so grateful for all those who spread the word and are helping us grow,” she said.
The cafe specializes in pre-made, grab-and-go meals such as the “Seoul Bowl,” which is a mix of cucumber, carrot, brown rice, cabbage and a bunch of different sauces and seasonings. They also sell snacks and treats such as chocolate chip cookies and “Chunky Monkey Chia Pudding.”
While the cafe no longer offers delivery service – which it did while operating out of Catapult – Schillinger said they’re adding a pre-order feature so customers can order their weekly meals and pick them up at the cafe.
She said her business model isn’t about pushing veganism. It’s about making fresh, flavorful plant-based meals convenient and accessible.
“We want to encourage everyone to add more variety, fiber, plant-based proteins, greens, whole foods, raw foods, and fresh ingredients into their diets. If you’re able to lean into eating this type of food, your body will thank you,” Schillinger said.
Schilliger started her own vegan journey due to heart disease being prevalent in her family. She hopes she can avoid contracting the disease and the daily medication that comes with it.
“Going vegan was most certainly life changing,” Schillinger said. “I made the switch after making the connection between metabolic disorders and the food we consume. My health has been stable and remains so without the use of any medicines; my family health history indicates that had I remained on the standard American diet, I would most certainly be prescribed at least statins by now if not other more aggressive prescriptions to maintain heart health.”
A few years after becoming vegan, she said she “stumbled upon” Catapult, a co-working space and business incubator in downtown Lakeland. Previous to that, she’d been operating out of the kitchen at Grace City Church (now The King’s Church). Schillinger said she began working out of the commercial kitchen at Catapult when it first opened in its new Lake Mirror location.
“I know how to cook for a family or a crowd but translating that into a business was challenging, as I had no business or commercial cooking experience. Maggie Leach, the kitchen director, was available every step of the way providing resources, training, guidance and support to prepare me for going out on my own,” Schillinger said.
Schillinger grew the business’ customer base bit by bit.
“We met so many plant-based eaters and we were able to spread the word about Vegetation. Meeting people at the market who had an interest in healthy eating led us to grow our weekly meal service at Catapult, which brought us to our Gary Road location today,” Schillinger said.
Schillinger draws inspiration for her dishes from travel. She said you’ll often find her traveling with her husband, trying new foods and then incorporating them into her menu. She also has studied Nutrition Studies online at Cornell University. She uses a local distributor to purchase her produce and strives to use Florida-grown vegetables and fruits when practical, she explained.
One of the challenges she faced in opening the cafe was finding a commercial kitchen to lease. She said they were lucky to find the Gary Road location.
“This space is a dream for us as it allows us to have a nice-sized kitchen as well as a decent-sized space for cafe seating. It’s off the beaten path but close to downtown and we’ve been so lucky to have so many folks come find us and give us a try!” Schillinger said.
For people on the fence about going vegan, she encourages them to “keep sampling plant-based options until you settle on the things that work with your palate and lifestyle.” She encourages people to include lots of plant-based proteins and slow-burning whole grains in their meals.
“We all know we should be eating more vegetables and fewer processed foods. This is true if you’re a vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, pescatarian – whatever. We just want to make you some really great-tasting food which happens to be great for you too. I think it’s something we can all agree on,” Schillinger said.
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