kelly barnhart at vibrant

‘Underworked and squeaky clean food for feeling good’ — that’s how we’d define the modern menus of so many wellness-driven cafes in L.A. and New York — from honey hi in Echo Park to Butcher’s Daughter in Williamsburg. And it’s exactly how Kelly Barnhart defines her own menu at Vibrant, a Houston-based and responsibly sourced cafe she founded in 2018.

While green juice and gluten-free pancakes may be trendy, or even low-key obnoxious, to some, we find these kinds of menus totally inspiring. Here’s why. Modern wellness menus are exciting, new and interesting enough for good foodies to order from — they also make us feel incredibly good. They also prove that rigorous values around health and sustainability can still be fun, stylish, and high-design.

We talked with Vibrant founder, Kelly Barnhart about her interesting menu, deeply held values around sustainability and the incredibly beautiful dining room…

Congratulations on Vibrant, although you’ve now been open for more than two years. Tell us about the concept in a nutshell: We opened in August of 2018 with the intention to create a space where people could come and experience well-being and pleasure through food, design and one another.

We love that the menu is fully gluten, dairy and refined sugar free, but that the food still feels local and accessible. How would you describe Vibrant’s menu? An eclectic all-day menu that highlights pared down classics and incorporates distinct local and regional ingredients. The goal with each dish is to provide really delicious food while maintaining and enhancing it’s nutritional integrity.  It’s food for feeling good.

Blue masa pancakes + Caramel donut with bee pollen

Your favorite personal meal at Vibrant? Our chicken tacos with chipotle cashew crema. We make the best blue corn tortillas from scratch daily and the chicken is from Three Sisters; a local sustainable farm.

Vibrant’s values stretch so far — from clean eating to composting. Talk to us about the efforts you think are the most exciting and the ones are most proud of?  It all goes hand-in-hand really; from how we source ingredients for the menu to our biodegradable to-go packaging, we consider our waste, impact on the environment, and the kinds of agricultural and food practices our dollars support.

Right now we are focused on growing our composting program and further reducing our daily food waste. We get monthly diversion reports and use those as a metric for improvement. It has been exciting to discover how many of our guests care just as much about these things as we do.

You make your bread, cheese, milks and sausage from scratch in-house daily! How do you pull that off? Sounds incredible. With a lot of hard work and a kitchen team that understands the importance of their role in the Vibrant experience.

It’s a process of honoring the fundamentals and using fresh, local ingredients to create beautiful dishes with minimal alteration without compromising their nutritional value. Nothing is overworked.

We love that you offer a CSA box! Can diners essentially leave lunch with a produce bag for later?  On certain days of the week, yes! We partnered with Animal Farm and they provide weekly, just-picked bags of produce and eggs. You can also add an arrangement of their beautiful wildflowers.

How has the response been from the community? Clearly, people like Chalkboard readers in Houston must be excited, but has a lot of education been required with the rest of your diners? I knew we were filling a void in Houston and there were others like me who craved something that just didn’t exist here.  We have had a devout following from the time we opened the doors and much of our success has been through word of mouth. I think that’s a testament to like-minded consumers who were looking for a place to nourish themselves in a more conscientious way.

Which Vibrant dish could convert any junk food devotee? Our Chicken Panini. Who doesn’t love a warm, toasted sandwich? Our gluten-free focaccia, jalapeno-cilantro hummus and sunflower ricotta are creature comforts.

Greens and grain bowl with sprouted quinoa + macadamia cashew cheese

Let’s talk about the design of the space. Who designed it, what were you aiming for? We love all the great chairs… The space designed itself in a way. The completely untouched, free standing 1961 dry cleaner we started with echoed a sentiment of completely stripped down, pared back minimalism.

The chairs are vintage and of the time, and were made in the spirit of creating great design for the masses. The color palette echoes the original clay bricks. The space works as a perfect medium for the food— simple, no unnecessary ingredients, and a lot of soul.

A few years ago, we’d say a cafe like Vibrant would only be found in LA or NYC. What are you most excited for your community to learn about and embrace? Vibrant was born out of necessity for exactly this reason! We have been most excited for people to experience clean food that doesn’t sacrifice taste and to discover that well-being and pleasure can be synonymous.

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