Sondra Kelley and her husband Ben Kelley never dreamed of owning and operating a vegan restaurant, but in November 2018, a few years after the couple ditched meat and adopted a plant-based diet, they opened Kelley Farm Kitchen in West Virginia.
The restaurant, which was recently crowned Yelp’s top eatery of 2021, only serves plant-based food. It’s small and sits in a tiny town of less than 300 people, yet the eatery has managed to grow and thrive (even in the midst of a global pandemic) thanks to a supportive community and a whole lot of hardwork and dedication. Sondra cooks all the food, while Ben answers the phones and keeps an eye on the front door.
The Kelley’s vegan journey began over five years ago “immediately” after they watched Forks Over Knives—a 2011 documentary which asserts that many illnesses, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, can be prevented and treated by eating a whole-food, plant-based diet.
The revelation occurred days before Thanksgiving, so Sondra, who had already started preparing typical non-vegan fare for the holiday, sent her guests home with “everything from my refrigerator and freezer that contained animal products that day and we just started fresh.”
Yet while Ben and Sondra were happy to give up meat without so much as a second thought, many of the couple’s friends didn’t welcome their dietary change.
“My friends did not react positively, Sondra tells LIVEKINDLY. “We live in such a rural area where agriculture is a large part of a lot of people’s lives, and, especially five years ago, [veganism] wasn’t as well known as it is today. It wasn’t as accepted.”
Though Sondra says she and Ben lost a lot of friends (including some who worked in the farming industry) after going vegan, the duo also found new pals who they are ultimately better aligned with.
“Being vegan is not just the way that you eat, it’s a lifestyle that you have. I think if your views change, you have to align yourself with people that have similar thoughts, feelings, and views,” she explains. “Especially if you have a moral objection to something, it’s kind of hard to carry on those relationships.”
Even given the pushback she received from some friends, Sondra in no way regrets her decision to switch to a vegan diet and had no issues with the sudden dietary change. In fact, she’s adamant that a plant-based eating regimen has improved her health and her well-being.
“It felt right immediately. We felt better immediately, we both lost weight, we both had more energy, slept better, and felt better about the quality of human beings that we were,” she says. “[Going vegan] is the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Why Open a Vegan Restaurant?
The opportunity to open a restaurant came a few years after Sondra and Ben became vegans. Sondra jumped at the chance despite previously working in the car business for 16 years and having no previous restaurant experience under her belt.
“I had no culinary background, I had never worked in a restaurant in my entire life, I just had a really, really strong passion for cooking,” she recalls. “Someone in town asked if I would be interested in opening a restaurant in an open tiny little house that she had and I thought, ‘Well, sure, why not?’ Never say no to an opportunity that sounds like a good time!”
While opening a restaurant (especially with no prior experience) may be daunting for some, Sondra knew she had to give it a shot.
“I just wanted to share good food with my friends and make new friends who would appreciate vegan food. I didn’t think we would be busy,” she explains with a laugh. “I thought that maybe we would have 10 customers a day.”
Yet before Kelley Farm Kitchen’s first day of business was even over, Sondra knew the restaurant wasn’t exactly going to be the “little sleepy cafe” she had initially envisioned.
“The day we opened there was like a line of people outside the front door. I was freaking out,” she remembers. “I’m not a panic attack kind of person, but I looked out the door and there were so many people. I was like, ‘What have I done?!’”
A low overhead (Sondra grows most of the food herself) and an understanding customer base that didn’t mind waiting an hour or more for food while the Kelleys worked out some kinks typically associated with a new restaurant, helped Kelley Farm Kitchen thrive in its early days. Sondra was also a quick study and didn’t hesitate to change things that weren’t working.
“When I first opened, I had all of these things on the menu that you would not put on the menu if you knew what you were doing!” she recalls with a laugh. “I had a baked sweet potato and a baked potato, I had a spaghetti dish, I had stuffed mushrooms that I would stuff by hand when someone ordered them. I had no concept of how to prep. There were a lot of learning curves and a lot of kinks. But we’ve finally gotten to a place where we’re comfortable with that and I’ve gotten to a place where I’m a lot faster in the kitchen.”
Still, Sondra admits she had no idea the restaurant, which often has an hours-long wait on the weekends, would be as successful as it is today. As she puts it: “I never had an idea that we would grow or flourish into what we have today and it’s so humbling.”
A “Supportive” Vegan Community
Sondra credits the community for helping Kelley Farm Kitchen be a success, but also notes that she and her husband have worked hard to create good, vegan food and cultivate a family-like atmosphere.
“We make sure that we put all of the love into caring for each person that comes through the door. It’s really kind of like you’re calling your friend asking’ Hey can I come over for dinner?’ when you come pick up a meal from us,” she notes. “It’s not like you’re just getting carryout from a restaurant.”
That community has helped put Kelley Farm Kitchen on the map with locals and tourists alike, and the eatery has even stayed busy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite pivoting from a small sit-down restaurant to take-out only.
“We are situated in this little gem of a town called Bolivar, which is right next to Harper’s Ferry. We get a ton of tourist traffic, all kinds of vegans come from everywhere to stay and enjoy the town,” Sondra says. “[We get] non-vegans alike too—a lot of our business is people who have never had a vegan meal before.”
The grateful customers, Sondra notes, are what keep her going even after a grueling 100-hour work week. “The highlight of every day is getting to see all of the people that we’ve built relationships with and getting to share stories with them,” she declares.
Kelley Farm Kitchen’s Expansive Menu: Something for Everyone
Thanks to its prime location amid multiple tourist attractions as well as its close proximity to several small mountains and hiking trails, Kelley Farm Kitchen manages to attract a crowd of clients (both vegan and non-vegan) with a wide range of dietary preferences.
One such group is Sondra’s fellow animal rights activists, who are often in nearby Washington, D.C. protesting things like the fur trade, horse racing, and animal agriculture. The restaurant also brings in an “outdoorsy” crowd thanks to Ben, who is an avid hiker.
Kelley Farm Kitchen’s “diverse clientele” also stems from the fact that the restaurant has a large vegan menu that has something for everyone. While the bevy of plant-based burgers are “very popular with most of the guys,” Sondra points out that the vast majority of her customers are young women, who like everything from the spicy curry noodle bowl to the vegan nachos.
“Then we also have your crunchy vegans. They love the spring rolls, the raw root wrap, the fresh salads that don’t have any of the meat substitutes,” she explains. “I do a lot of work with jackfruit as well, so we have a lot of gluten-free options and soy-free options, and stuff that doesn’t contain any of the good indulgent stuff that I love, like the Beyond Sausage and Just Egg. And then you have that crowd—the junk food vegans.”
Sondra adds: “It just depends on who comes to the door, what is popular that day.”
Converting Customers to Plant-Based Eaters
Though it’s certainly not the Kelley’s goal to convert meat-eating customers into vegans, Sondra says it’s fun and meaningful to do.
“When someone says, ‘I’m not vegan but if I could eat like this I could be vegan’ things like that tug on your heart strings,” she explains. “Or when people say, ‘My kid wants to be a vegan now because of you,’ or ‘My husband is considering Meatless Mondays now because of you’ those changes are the absolute highs for sure.”
In fact, Sondra estimates that about “200 or 300” customers have already switched to plant-based diets.
“It’s kind of cool being able to convert some of the meat-eaters over. The Impossible Burger is a really, really, really good tool for that,” she shares.
“A lot of our crunchy vegans don’t like it because it doesn’t check all of the boxes for being exactly vegan, but it’s a wonderful product and a wonderful tool for converting some of those people who would ordinarily never try, like, a black bean burger. You still get them to eat something that’s plant-based, so we’ve been able to utilize that.”
When it comes down to it, Sondra says people just want to eat “good” and “fresh” food.
“Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Oh, I want to eat like shit today!’ Even if you’re not vegan. You never wake up and say, ‘Oh I’d love to eat a huge meal and then feel like crap and sit on the couch in a coma later,’” she argues.
“When you can show someone that you can eat fresh food with fresh vegetables, and it’s presented in a way that looks appealing, and it’s a good value for the money and they leave satiated—you eat it and it tastes good—I think those are things that we need desperately in our food system.”
Shifting Perceptions of Vegan Food
Though Sondra doesn’t think she’s changed that much since adopting a plant-based diet and starting a vegan business, she did note that she’s now more aware of the “struggles that people have personally faced in the adversity of animal agriculture protesting.”
She continues: “There are so many people who are just going to jail for an undetermined amount of time because they’ve been deemed an eco-terrorist because they took a picture inside a slaughterhouse. I think I’ve become more aware of the struggles that people are going through to try to help promote veganism.”
And while Sondra says she lives in a “bubble” of a town in which many of the residents are fully aware of the animal rights aspect and environmental toll of eating meat, she knows there’s still work to be done when it comes to disproving the stigmas associated with a plant-based diet.
“Everyone thinks it’s going to be overpriced, it’s going to taste like sticks and grass, I’m going to leave hungry and it’s not going to do what I want it to do,” she says. “If you can fight that stigma and you can give someone a big honkin’ veggie burger that tastes great, and fills them up and hits all the senses for $14, they’re in. Who wouldn’t be?”
The accomplished restaurateur adds: “To me, the whole world is vegan and the whole world can be, or wants to be vegan, they just haven’t had a chance to be educated yet. We have had so many customers that have come in and they’re so cool and they’re so open-minded.”
As for what’s next for her, her family and her business? Sondra insists she’s content with things just as they are. “I’m so thankful for everything that we have and everything that we’ve built. I don’t know that a human being could ask for anything more or want anything more than what I have right now,” she concludes. “I know this restaurant is tiny and we still have no money [laughs] but that’s not what life is about. It’s about the quality of your life and the quality of people that you have around you in your community. We are the richest people on Earth when it comes to that.”