Smile Politely

A fork in the road

A lot has changed in the 35 or so years of The Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant. A lot has even changed since my wife and I wrote about it in our first Vegan Ease article in November 2011. Just last month, head chef and manager Dan Garrison quit. And, sadly, board member and founder Ron Cannon passed away. The Health Department shut down the use of their fryer due to a health code violation. The food, service, and open hours were inconsistent at best. I would plan on going for dinner and I’d show up to find it closed. I stopped going. Maybe you did too. Things just seemed to be working against them. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Herring decided to shut things down a little early this semester to make a push for a full makeover. Committee members from the Channing-Murray Foundation Board (Rachel Storm and Matt Murphy) and new general manager, Sean Seckler, are hard at work (a lot of it as volunteers) to see how to get a lot out of an organization that doesn’t have much to give. “We’re at a fork in the road,” Murphy said.

On Friday, the Herring will hold their “Renovation Kick-off Fundraiser” and launch a Kickstarter campaign to help combat their lack of funding, staffing issues, and the “inconsistencies of demand,” as Murphy puts it. There’s a lot of work to be done and they need your help. They’re hoping for kitchen upgrades, a regular staff, a head chef (without the general manager duties), interns to help with grant writing, and new recipes to revamp their menu.

“We’re hoping for a scaled back version of what was working successfully last fall,” Seckler said. While the details of that remain unclear (and depend on the funds that they can raise), the initial plan is to offer soups, salads, and rotating special entrees. “We have a commitment to producing high-quality food instead of trying to produce a whole raft of mediocre food. We want to do a few things really well,” Murphy added.

The truth of the matter is that, if you’re a vegan, there aren’t any good options for dining out in this town. Don’t tell me, “But you can get a bean burger at…” It doesn’t matter. Most of those aren’t vegan. And neither is the bun. Or the fries. Start asking questions about that “vegan” dish you were going to order and prepare to be disappointed. It’s happened to me more times than I can count. I’m not saying that there aren’t any options, just no consistent and good ones. If you think I’m wrong, then provide some examples. Maybe I’ll agree. But I doubt it.

Sure, the number of vegans and vegetarians may comprise a small percentage of the population, but there is demand. Just hang around Strawberry Fields or Common Ground Food Co-op for a while and you’ll see. The Red Herring is the best chance to fill that void and they’re battling a host of issues. But they can pull it off. “We have a lot of shared goals and ideas about how we want The Red Herring to function. We want it to be a community hub,” Storm said. She said that they hope to continue holding cultural events, to promote educational justice, and to hold documentary/dinner nights. The ideal vision includes being part of a “local food network,” as Storm calls it. “We want to create a Red Herring community,” Murphy said.

If you would like to become a part of that budding community or to get more insight and share your thoughts, come to the fundraiser Friday night at The Red Herring (1209 W. Oregon St., Urbana) from 5–8 p.m.

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