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Vegan cart to shed its wheels

Terra Molengraff/Daily
The Lunch Room cart in September 2011. Buy this photo

By Ashwini Natarajan, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 20, 2013

Fans of vegan food cart The Lunch Room will soon be able to enjoy their fare indoors.

The Lunch Room is making the transition from the food-cart courtyard, Mark's Carts, to a permanent restaurant in Kerrytown, replacing the recently closed Yamato restaurant at 403 N. Fifth Avenue.

The restaurant is set to open in June and will serve lunch and dinner five days a week, breakfast on Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market days and brunch on Sundays.

Owners Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo are excited about turning their cart into a brick-and-mortar establishment and sharing their passion for vegan cuisine.

Engelbert said she sees the restaurant as part of the revolution where veganism is becoming more mainstream and people are more open to trying vegan food.

“We will be able to experiment with vegan food and expand what people think about vegan food,” she said. “And not just locally, but we are putting ourselves out there nationally as a vegan destination.”

An extensive new menu has been created for the restaurant, featuring items such as vegan pizza, sushi and roasted root vegetable pasties, like those found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The restaurant will also be serving up a wide array of vegan desserts.

Engelbert accredits the menu expansion to new freedoms that a large restaurant kitchen entails and the greater clientele she hopes to attract. There were many limitations with the food cart: Business was dependent on the weather, there was limited space to cook and certain cooking equipment was impractical to use.

“We couldn’t do pizza in a cart because we couldn’t bake food to order ... We couldn’t do veggie burgers because there was no griddle.”

Engelbert said while she won’t miss being in the cart, she will miss the atmosphere of Mark’s Carts.

Lisa Sauvé and Adam Smith, designers at the Synecdoche design studio, are looking to create a modern, yet earthy ambiance for The Lunch Room to mark the move from cart to restaurant. The space will feature decor such as metal origami chairs, wood paneling and green plants.

“We want to create a more permanent, warm atmosphere for people who are dining in,” Sauvé said.

They hope to find a way to build an open kitchen within the confines of the small restaurant space.

“The space is small and the ambitions are big,” she said. “The biggest challenge is layout so far.”

Karen Farmer, manager of Kerrytown Market & Shops, said The Lunch Room is a perfect fit for Kerrytown because the owners are already so actively involved in the community.

“They’re part of the local food summit; they know the community really well; they’re going to bring more people to Kerrytown,” Farmer said. “(For) people who are already regulars to Kerrytown, this is just going to enhance their experience.”

She also said she is glad they are joining the community because their food will attract a variety of customers.

“We think that they will be a really good fit because they are going to cater to a diverse crowd, including the vegans, but it really caters to everybody because I’m not vegan and I love their food,” she said.

Engelbert made it clear that The Lunch Room will not be a high-end restaurant. She said she wants to make the menu affordable and casual.

“We hope to be the type of restaurant where people can afford to eat often and feel comfortable being regulars,” she said. “It’ll be the kind of place where the orders will be there all the time, where you can make a personal connection.”