Sept. 25 2013 12:00 AM

Better Health Café offers organic, vegan and gluten-free lunch selections



I’m a semi-regular shopper at The Better Health Store, the natural and organic grocery store located across ORGANIC from Frandor Shopping Center in Lansing Township. Until recently, however, I hadn’t tried its café. I’d glanced at it as I perused the back of the store, usually as I was in search of natural peanut butter, oatmeal or (let’s be honest) wine; but despite my affinity for natural, healthy, non-industrial foods, I’ve never been big on salad bars, the café’s centerpiece. Call me crazy.

But now that the café has added a hot bar to its cold bar, it’s a whole new ballgame. Not to mention a full menu of organic sandwiches, wraps and burgers, smoothies, juices and coffee that has somehow slipped under my radar.

The café added the hot bar to the mix about seven months ago, the café’s manager, Tasha Kuhn, told me. The menu changes everyday, posted regularly to Better Health’s Facebook page; Kuhn said the aim is to meet a range of dietary needs.

“We try to do mostly gluten-free,” she said, “And we always offer something vegan and some protein or real meat.” She added that the café has also incorporated more caveman-friendly items as the paleo diet has surged in popularity. “Our customers are pretty loyal to us, and so we try to cover (all types of diets),” she explained.

I first tried the café’s lunch last Monday, and its wide selection made for a hard choice. I reluctantly passed over the baked tilapia with cumin and coriander, free-range garlic Parmesan chicken breast, California brown basmati rice, spicy black-eyed peas and pinto beans and (even more reluctantly) the all-natural walnut apple pie. I also skipped the soups, but there were some great-sounding options: Award-winning vegan chili, dilled barley soup, African pineapple peanut stew and a traditional clam chowder.

Instead, I opted for the free-range chicken stew, roasted red beets and onions, roasted seasoned zucchini and sugar snap peas.

From the cold bar I added a small salad with organic greens, tofu, chickpeas and sunflower seeds. The dressings weren’t homemade but were all-natural. I topped it off with a biscuit and some spiced rice pudding. My total, with the store’s standard 10 percent student discount, came to $8.07 — much less than I’d expected.

“(The price) isn’t bad,” Kuhn said. “We just do everything (for $8.79) per pound, whether it’s hot or cold.”

As I ate, people drifted in and out. When I arrived that morning at 11:30, it was pretty slow, but by the time I finished up the place was lively; seven of the 10 tables were full, and there were several people circling the hot/cold bar and a growing check-out line. Kuhn told me that it’s been sort of slow the last few weeks with school starting, but that overall business has picked up since the arrival of the hot bar.

A couple of days later I returned, and this time, newly confident with how things worked, I helped myself to a plate of freerange chicken in a natural broth, garlic smashed redskin potatoes (vegan, glutenand dairy free), roasted kale with strawberries and blueberries, gourmet stuffed mushrooms with wild sockeye salmon, bread with vegan butter (surprisingly tasty!) and a photo-worthy slice of all-natural blueberry pie. I definitely pigged out this time, and my total came to $11.47 — with leftovers.

The café tries to source as much of its all-organic meats and produce as it can from local suppliers, one of the employees told me as I made my selections. Yet another reason to add to my growing list of reasons to eat here.

This time as I ate, I studied the permanent menu more carefully; it has a ton of appetizing and not-too-expensive options, too. Traditional meat burgers (grass-fed

Angus beef), black bean or portabella burgers for $6.99, served with chips or an apple and a pickle.

A range of sandwiches and wraps are also offered, in addition to a full menu of smoothies and juices — which use allorganic fruits and local honey — and an organic and fair-trade coffee bar. Across the board, the café seems to be seeking the the highest quality products.

“We make sure that our meats are hormone and antibiotic free,” reads the café’s website, “Our coffee is always organic and fair trade … (and) most of the foods we serve avoid the process of any genetic engineering.”

People did seem to be enjoying themselves. As customers checked out at the counter, I heard friendly and familiar conversations. Kuhn told me there are a lot of regulars here. I think they just got another.