Behold: A vegan empire
Chef Makini Howell has always been the only one: the only woman in the room, the only entrepreneur in a group and, growing up in the Pacific Northwest during the ’80s and ’90s, the only vegan. “Exploring new territory is familiar to me,” says the restaurateur. So is success. This year, she’s celebrating a decade of serving Seattle flavorful vegan food at her flagship restaurant, Plum Bistro.
Howell grew up watching her mother sell tofu sandwiches, modeling what it looks like to run a vegan food business. So, even though Howell never went to culinary school, her lifelong veganism and instinct for flavor keep her business expanding.
In addition to Plum Bistro, she runs the casual dining hotspot Plum Pantry; the salad bar Plum Chopped; Sugar Plum, her sweet shop; and the Plum food truck. Her cookbook, Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle’s Plum Bistro, came out in 2013 from Sasquatch Books, with blurbs from celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix, Common and India.Arie. Oh, and then there was the whole “personal touring chef for Stevie Wonder” thing.
But in 2009, when Plum Bistro first opened, Howell wasn’t yet at the “famous friends” stage of her life. Instead, she was quickly realizing that she had to do more than serve the best BBQ sandwich on the planet.
“Everything is brown,” she says of much vegan food, particularly at that time. Embracing her background as a former men’s wear designer, she fought that reputation and worked to elevate her food. “There’s lots of color in food, but you have to look for it.”
The work paid off. Today, the trendy bistro—with high ceilings, dramatic light fixtures and a big garage door looking onto even trendier 12th Avenue—lures groups of mixed company. It tantalizes vegans with the idea of a sharable, southern-tinged group dinner where they can eat anything, and it pleases omnivores with dishes like “calamari” made from oyster mushrooms.
Just three years after opening Plum Bistro, Howell jumped at an opportunity to solidify her stamp on the city’s food scene: opening an outlet in the remodeled food court at the heart of Seattle Center. In a large corner of the sprawling Armory, Howell’s signature dishes take center stage. While food courts aren’t known for their ambience, the long counters at Plum Pantry are welcoming, with an array of cookies and fresh fruit shining beneath the pendant lights.
The menu features Howell’s hits from the Bistro, like her signature Mac and Yease. But it also appeals to the wide audience at the tourist-friendly location—ballet attendees and visitors from around the world alike—with customizable grain bowls, a “macho burrito” and fresh juices and smoothies, all made in full view of the seating area.
While the Bistro came about to fill the void of upscale vegan restaurants, the Pantry was the opposite. “I wanted to create access for anyone,” Howell says. “People looking for good food— not necessarily vegan.” Among the many crowds Plum Pantry has served since its 2012 opening were those coming to see Stevie Wonder play next door at KeyArena.
“Stevie Wonder changed my view on what food was,” says Howell. In 2014, he stopped by Plum Bistro for lunch. What he ate impressed him, and he eventually hired Howell to be his personal chef for the next eight months of his tour. She took off, crafting portobello mushroom Caesar salads and mixing up smoothies for the superstar.
“The tour taught me how to cook food that touches your soul that is also plant based,” says Howell. She learned from the other cooks and chefs she met as they traveled, picking up tips and recipes. The schedule was grueling, and her confidentiality agreement prevented her from telling people where she was and what she was doing, but it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “You have to constantly create when you work for someone as creative as him,” she says.
Upon her return, she collected what she’d learned and the inspiration she’d found, and she turned it into Plum Chopped.
The slim hallway of a retail operation, just a few doors down from Plum Bistro, is actually the front of Howell’s catering kitchen. Plum Chopped serves a menu full of dishes with road-warrior names like “Take Me on Tour” (a tempeh and kale Caesar with fried chickpeas), “Turn Up the Beet” (chopped beets with arugula, nut cheese and wheatberries) and “On the Road in Texas” (a breakfast burrito with soy chorizo, yams and black beans).
“I learned on tour how important dessert was,” says Howell. Growing up vegan, soft-serve ice cream and cases full of pastries weren’t something she’d been used to. “I wanted to create something for the kid in me that missed out.” Sugar Plum opened in 2015.
Inside the white walls of the shop, plant-based cakes fill a glass-fronted, white wood case, and cookies and brownies sit on plates on the butcher-block top. To one side, a freezer case topped with cones holds the ice cream options, including standard flavors like vanilla and seasonal ones like kale-winterberry and bergamot citrus.
In Howell’s empire of restaurants, each spot is different—and her branding and aesthetic give each one its own identity. “They can’t just be ‘the vegan restaurant,’ but need to convey what the food will taste like,” she says. And here at Sugar Plum, it tastes like sweet success, the icing on Howell’s many-layered vegan cake.