The Curious Connection Between Health Food Restaurants And Cults

My favorite breakfast spot in Chicago was Victory's Banner. It was a quirky, cheerful cafe in Roscoe Village with yellow walls, a diverse waitstaff wearing saris, pictures of an older man weightlifting and smiling on every wall, and sugar packets that had quotes on the back of them like "listen to your heart whispers." My heart whispers told me to continue eating there, because the French toast with peach butter was truly the best I've ever had. I continued to eat there for years despite a mounting list of questions, like: Who exactly was the weightlifting man in all these photographs? Who was telling me, via fortune-cookie-esque sugar packets, to live my best life journey? And why would a restaurant also organize meditation workshops? The answer to all of these questions was Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual guru who promoted healthy living and meditation from the 1960s until his death in 2007. His followers continue to propagate his teachings.

I once asked a server at Victory's Banner if the owners and staff were part of a religion, and she informed me they were "a meditation group" that offered seminars. "Meditation group" is pretty vague, but to some, that's exactly what they were. Others would consider them a cult, albeit one that served a great vegetarian brunch with bottomless chai.

When I looked into Sri Chinmoy, I found that his followers operated vegetarian restaurants all over the country. A cursory search on Reddit brings up threads that ask the question, "Is the vegan restaurant near me owned by a cult?" Maybe!

The followers of Sri Chinmoy aren't the exception; they appear to be the rule. Why would all these self-proclaimed meditation groups own meat-free restaurants? An easy answer is that many such groups adhere to very strict and specific diets. According to the Sri Chinmoy Center's website, "Vegan and vegetarian diets are often the preferred lifestyle choice of seekers and meditators. The mild qualities of the plant kingdom likewise nourish mild qualities in ourselves, strengthening our simplicity, kindness and oneness with others." It's not too far off from what you might have been told by some yogis in your own life.

It's fair to say that the promotion of vegetarianism and veganism by groups like Sri Chinmoy is at least partially responsible for the health food movement of the 1960s and '70s. The Hare Krishnas, also founded in the 1960s, are known for having inclusive and free vegetarian dinners on Sundays, but they also run Hare Krishna Food for Life organization which is a nonprofit vegan food relief fund. The Twelve Tribes, which arose in the 1970s, are responsible for The Yellow Deli. All of these groups ran their restaurants to promote what they deem a healthy balance of diet and spirituality.

Perhaps the O.G. of spiritual restaurants was in Los Angeles. In 1969, Jim Baker, aka Father Yod, recruited his followers to open and operate The Source, the nation's first health food restaurant of any renown that served organic vegetarian food to hippies, locals, tourists, and movie stars. Employees of the restaurant were like family. Literally: they were a cult (and rock band) known as The Source Family. The Source had crossover appeal with the general public; the restaurant was even featured in Annie Hall. It continued to prosper until Baker sold the business in 1974.

In more recent years, the most famous modern example of a cult-run vegetarian restaurant is likely The Loving Hut. Entrepreneur Supreme Master Ching Hai is the mysterious spiritual leader behind The Loving Hut, a vegetarian franchise that boasts over 100 locations around the world and whose locations all have TVs broadcasting Supreme Master TV, a channel owned by Ching Hai that promotes "24 hours of positive news a day." (This is a bit more forward than the meditation workshops recommended to customers at Victory's Banner.) The group behind The Loving Hut practices the Quan Yin Method, the Buddhist-based meditation practice and belief system that Supreme Master Ching Hai promotes to followers around the world. Ching Hai is a Vietnamese millionaire who has been growing both her fortune and her following since the 1990s.

Since its peak in 2015, however, some of The Loving Hut's 140 locations around the world have closed. The Sri Chinmoy restaurant I frequented in Chicago is also now closed—sort of. It reopened in 2018 as Lucy's Cafe, and while it has the same menu, the new owners informed me they are not affiliated with Sri Chinmoy. They bought the restaurant a few years ago, but they kept the Victory's Banner menu, which means we can all still enjoy French toast with peach butter. The inspirational sugar packets, however, are long gone.

It's hard to tell where the Sri Chinmoy–affiliated owners went, or why they sold the business. There was negative press surrounding Sri Chinmoy after his death in 2007, with a former member publishing a book about her experiences in what she deems a controlling cult. But that was ten whole years before the closure of Victory's Banner. Still, it's possible that with each damning expose, institutions like Chicago's brunch cafe and The Loving Hut lose out on interested parties who arrive with an appetite for both pancakes and enlightenment.

Because, after all, these restaurants are operating under a dual business model: they want the restaurant to make money to fund their respective organizations, but they also consider recruitment a metric for their success. With the restaurant industry's razor-thin margins, the health food is just as much a promotional expense as a moneymaker. I reached out to representatives from these groups and the employees of several spiritually inclined vegetarian restaurants around the country, but they all declined to comment on the particulars of their restaurants. Instead, I'm left with what Sri Chinmoy himself had to say: "We came into the world, not only to eat material food, but also to feed our heart with our aspiration-meal." My own aspiration is to skip the meditation workshops and order another serving of that peachy French toast.