Leigh Lockhart said she never lets a piece of meat touch her restaurant’s grill.
When she opened her Columbia vegetarian restaurant, Main Squeeze, in 1997, the average American ate nearly 205 pounds of poultry and red meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lockhart, however, wanted to stick with her values, despite knowing she was outside the norm.
“We did a lot of things that, in retrospect, seemed really progressive,” Lockhart said. “But at the time it just seemed like the normal thing to do.”
More recently, those values — and the vegetarian restaurant that boasts “Save a cow, eat at Main Squeeze” outside its front door — fit into a larger shift toward plant-based diets. A year-long Nielsen study from June 2018 reported sales of plant-based nutrition were up by 15 percent.
Lockhart recognizes the growing mainstream attraction to environmentally friendly eating, which only serves to aid a menu that includes tofu bowls, fruit smoothies and quinoa burgers.
She believes Main Squeeze’s success, though, derives from authenticity — something her employees attribute to her.
Chris Leonard, who worked as a dishwasher and night manager at Main Squeeze in 1998, said many of Lockhart’s current practices are consistent with goals she set when the restaurant opened.
“She really has these strong beliefs,” Leonard said. “She knows about organic agriculture, she knows about sustainability and the Main Squeeze is this way to translate that stuff into a normal experience for other people who don’t think about it all the time.”
Lockhart said her restaurant began as a booth at the front of Lakota Coffee in downtown Columbia. As her brand grew, she moved into Main Squeeze’s current location — only two buildings away from where she started.
When Leonard began working at Main Squeeze, he said Lockhart was still building her business acumen, but her dedication to starting a business on her terms stood out to him.
“Leigh had never run a restaurant and was building this machine as she went day by day, learning about everything from wiring, to keeping the kitchen up to code, to getting the menu together, to the workflow of the kitchen,” Leonard said. “I mean, it was just happening all at once, and it was really exhilarating.”
Although employees described Main Squeeze as a fresh environment, Lockhart said she was not always able to brand her food the way she wanted.
“For the first decade, I probably never called it a vegetarian restaurant because the word is so charged for some people,” Lockhart said. “It’s like how people feel with the word vegan now.”
This posed a dilemma to Lockhart, who believes authenticity of product and message plays a critical role in business success.
“In my world, I wouldn’t be proud of my product if I didn’t pick the ingredients carefully,” Lockhart said.
Since Gallup began polling on the topic in 1999, the number of vegetarians in the U.S. has hovered around 5 percent. Although full-time vegetarianism has remained stable, Lockhart said a climate where people buy plant-based foods works well for Main Squeeze and her mission to increase sustainable eating.
This increase in popularity has allowed Lockhart to focus on giving back to others, something she hopes to continue during Main Squeeze’s 22nd year of business.
Missy Mills, one of the 30 employees at Main Squeeze and a vegetarian, said Lockhart’s capacity to provide for others runs consistent with the restaurant owner’s view on food.
“She makes sure that everybody — all aspects of our community — has access to plant-based food,” Mills said.
Lockhart said she often feels strange about sharing her philanthropic activities — such as a Feb. 13 trip to Job Point, a Columbia-based employment center — on Main Squeeze’s social media, but does it despite seeing the trips as a natural effort.
“I need people to know that’s why they’re paying $9 for a veggie burger,” Lockhart said. “I’m trying to pay my employees $10 to $12 an hour, and I’m trying to feed unfortunate people at Loaves and Fishes.”
This attention Lockhart gives to philanthropy was something Leonard said he saw in her day-to-day mentality of running a restaurant.
“She always emphasized — and it sounds so cheesy, but it’s true — treat these people how you want to be treated in your own home,” Leonard said. “You pay attention to them.”
Mills said she admires Lockhart’s beliefs about a business’s role in its community, which she thinks creates a more fulfilling workplace.
“Other employers that I’ve worked with don’t do that kind of stuff,” Mills said. “It’s really cool to be a part of a place that actually goes out and tries to make the world a better place.”
Lockhart said the lease on Main Squeeze’s building ends in about six years, and, at 54, she remains open about her future at the restaurant. However, Lockhart feels she has run Main Squeeze the right way.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my business, really,” Lockhart said. “To me, it’s perfect.”