One on One with Natasha Kwan, Founder and Owner of Frida’s Vegetarian Deli

After working in the food industry on and off for about 17 years, owner and founder Natasha Kwan says the idea for Frida’s Deli, located in University City outside of St. Louis, has been a long time coming.

“It’s been 20 years in the making,” Kwan says. “I’ve always wanted a vegetarian restaurant. I wanted something that offered all the options I had at home – all the healthy stuff.”

The University of Missouri grad lived in Chicago for about 10 years and came back to St. Louis to be closer to family. While she maintained a career in marketing, Kwan says she kept an eye out for opportunities to open her own restaurant.

“I was hoping that another place would do a concept that was very similar to Frida’s,” Kwan says. “When no one did it, I thought, ‘Wow, St. Louis really needs something like this.’ So, I went ahead and jumped ship.”

While Frida’s Deli appears to be one of a kind, recent trends across the country point to a steadily growing customer demand for healthy menu items.

Healthy is in, according to the National Restaurant Association. The association’s 2013 Restaurant Industry Forecast found that top culinary themes include gluten-free cuisine, local sourcing, whole-grain items, lower-sodium items and smaller portions for a lower price.

Google Trends also notes an increased public curiosity in veganism. A 2012 study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group and undertaken by Harris Interactive found that 2.5 percent of the country identified themselves as “vegan,” up from 1 percent in 2009. While that number may appear trivial, it means that the number of vegans has more than doubled nationwide in just three years.

In response to this trend, Kwan says Frida’s Deli has found success in its unwavering dedication to healthy food. The all-vegetarian menu accommodates a variety of lifestyles, diets and allergies.

“We don’t fry, we don’t use a micro-wave, we’re 100% sugar-free and we don’t use butter,” Kwan says. 

Healthy dishes at Frida’s range from the deli’s famous non-beef burgers, chopped kale salad and a beverage called, “Fountain of Youth.”

The award-winning health-food restaurant celebrated its one-year birthday on July 12. Since its start, Frida’s Deli received awards and recognition, and it continues to do so as it draws in customers and excellent reviews.

This year, Sauce Magazine Readers voted Frida’s their favorite “No one rolls their eyes at my dietary needs here” restaurant, The Riverfront Times voted it “Best Vegetarian Restaurant” in 2012 and in July, Alive Magazine awarded it “Best Vegan Menu.”

One regular customer from Columbia, Illinois, says the 30-minute drive to Frida’s is well worth the trip.

“I just love the ingredients that they use,” said Stacie Thoma. “No matter what you get, you know you’re getting something good for you and it’s nice to try new things. I like the raw menu because it’s a nice way to introduce yourself to that diet.”

Reviewers on Yelp and HappyCow rave about the customer service and unique menu. One customer wrote, “The marinated mushrooms are my jam! The staff at Frida’s has really outdone themselves to create a wonderful sanctuary of health eating in St. Louis. This is a must visit location, daily if possible!” 

Just one year after opening its doors, Frida’s Deli is expanding, taking the two retail bays next door. Kwan plans to use part of the space for additional seating (the current space only seats 16) and the other for an indoor hydroponic urban garden. The garden, to be called Frida’s Farm, will contribute items such as fresh lettuce, herbs and kale to an upcoming “From the Farm” menu.

“The garden will allow us to harvest the food right when it’s ready so it has more nutrients than most items,” Kwan says. “Diners in the new space will be able to look into the farm. It’s going to be really cool.”

Missouri Business Alert sat down with Kwan to talk about what goes into running a health-food restaurant and what plans she has for its future.

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