Can't Beef About This Fast Food: Vegetarian cafe takes cue from McDonald's

San Jose Mercury News

The sign outside promises fast food, and the menu offers a full selection of burgers, complete with special sauce, but it's clear from the outset that this is no ordinary hamburger stand.

This is McDharma's after all. There's no beef in the Big Monk burger here.

Former ice cream stand

For a little more than a year, Clark Heinrich has been serving vegetarian food with a fast food flair at the former ice cream stand on the corner of Portola and 17th avenues in Santa Cruz.

From the beginning, he tried to evoke the spirit of his obvious inspiration, McDonald's granddaddy of the fast food industry.

"It was an intentional connection there," Heinrich says of his choice of names for the new restaurant, "but it was not to confuse but to differentiate."

Heinrich, a 38-year-old teacher of yoga and philosophy, has spent about 14 years in and out of the food business, running a health food store and managing a coffee shop. He was convinced that the world was ready for a fast, natural foods restaurant.

When Bernie Shapiro came up with the money for a new business venture, Heinrich was ready with the idea.

Combined two ideas

"There are natural foods restaurants and there are fast food restaurants, but I hadn't seen a combination of the two done in a professional way, with sophistication," he said. "We wanted to break the mold people have about natural foods."

Shapiro and Heinrich started with a little burger stand that has housed a succession of unsuccessful restaurants in recent years. They repainted, remodeled, planted flowers and created a whimsical menu.

Brahma Burgers, Dharma Dogs, I'm Not Chicken sandwiches, Nuclear Subs and Secret Link Sauce became their stock in trade.

They chose "dharma," the ancient Sanskrit word for one's right course of action in the world, as the name communicating their commitment to vegetarianism. But they refused to be stuffy or sanctimonious about it.

Although they draw the line at serving meat, fish or eggs, they offer beer, wine, and desserts loaded with sugar in an attempt to attract a wide variety of people.

And the customers keep coming back. Shapiro and Heinrich expanded their small eatery twice in the first year to provide more indoor seating for the crowds.

Half a dozens customers were lined up at the order window during the lunch rush on a recent weekday. More than a dozen others were sitting in the dining room and covered patio, where vases filled with flowers sat on every table.

"I've been here before," said Laura Winson, who said that she's not a vegetarian. "It's real food that you can eat."

We've got several items that are very meatlike. I know that's what satisfies people," he said. "That's part of the problem: People think vegetarians only eat soybeans, tofu and alfalfa sprouts."

The success of McDharma's has prompted Shapiro and Heinrich to consider expanding to Palo Alto, Marin and Berkeley.

"We're trying to abolish those ideas that this kind of place wouldn't work anywhere," he said.