In the News:
Sharing through food and conversation
Posted March 14, 2005
"A lot of people lose faith in the world," said Harivilas das, co-founder and manager of My Sweet Lord Cafe. "And those are the people I made this cafe for. Those are the people I'm trying to reach, whether they're wealthy or homeless."
"Das," meaning "servant," is a title given to devout Hare Krishnas; Harivilas is a member of this religious sect. Harivilas opened the restaurant located on the Avenue above 55th Street Northeast three years ago. His main goal in creating the warm, brightly lit My Sweet Lord Cafe was for it to be a safe environment for people of all walks of life to share knowledge and philosophies while eating healthy food.
Defying classification, My Sweet Lord Cafe seems to fall somewhere between a soup kitchen and vegetarian restaurant. The doors are open to everyone, though guests seem to consist mainly of travel-weary youths and recent college graduates.
The only payment Harivilas expects for his food is conversation and hearty laughter. Monetary payment is not expected, though most visitors donate money in the same amount they would pay at any other restaurant. The restaurant mainly operates from funding through the Hare Krishna Temple of Sammamish, Wash., and The Great Northwest Charitable and Educational Foundation.
By sharing food with others instead of charging, Harivilas hopes to teach through example what he calls "the value of cooperative endeavor." He believes that hoarding resources such as money or food creates poverty. When people share those resources with each other, poverty and ill will toward humanity is eased.
Don Porterfield, a friend and fellow Hare Krishna, helped Harivilas open the cafe. "Harivilas is the one with all of the ideas," Porterfield explained. "Opening this restaurant was one of his long-time dreams, and he had been excited about it for a long time." Although Harivilas can be found chopping vegetables and directing volunteers on most nights, the white-haired Porterfield takes over on Friday nights, blasting music from Van Morrison throughout the kitchen.
The name of the cafe comes from a George Harrison song famous for its connection to the Hare Krishna movement. Harivilas had met Harrison, a member of The Beatles, in 1969, and was so deeply impressed by the kindness and spirituality Harrison exuded that he wanted to honor him. "Harrison raised spiritual consciousness through song, and I'm raising spiritual consciousness through food, so the name fits the restaurant well," said Harivilas.
Small and oblong, the restaurant is split in half by a white counter that Harivilas and his volunteers use to prepare food. Opposite the counter is a tidy row of eight small tables, allowing guests to watch and converse with the cooks while waiting for their meal. Simple and clean, the restaurant walls are painted a pale bluish-green with bright yellow trim around the windows. Unobtrusive lights line the edges of the ceiling, working with the painted walls to create the impression of dining in an open, sunny field. The diners seem to be comfortable in the cramped tables as they lean toward one another and converse. Loud laughter echoes over the crescendos of Krishna-inspired music.
Not only does Harivilas manage the cafe, but he also cooks and prepares the vegan and vegetarian food with the help of other Hare Krishna volunteers. There are no menus listing a variety of foods for patrons to choose from -- one vegan meal is offered each day, with a side of yogurt or other dairy product for vegetarians. The meals change each day, though they usually consist of a salad or vegetable side dish, grain, soup and a spice-brewed tea sweetened with honey.
At the far end from the door and visible throughout the entire restaurant hangs a framed picture of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder and spiritual master of Hare Krishna. The picture is embedded in a shrine-like structure where Goverdhan Singh, volunteer and member of the Hare Krishna movement, makes an offering of the daily meal in order to bless the food before serving guests. Harivilas explained that in order to show appreciation for the food provided by God, Krishnas make an offering to Swami, who is known as the guru of the Krishna movement. "We are unable to offer food directly to God, but A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami is our window to God and so we make an offering through him," said Harivilas.
But despite the Hare Krishna philosophies threaded throughout the restaurant, Harivilas and his volunteers do not believe in pushing their beliefs onto others. "I enjoy coming here not just because the food is good," said frequent visitor Benjamin Swatez, "but also because they respect everyone's philosophies and beliefs." Waving his hand toward Anne Gibbs, a young woman in a poncho with a large dog at her feet and Ty Chi, a young man in a patchwork cap, Swatez added that the restaurant is also an excellent place to meet new and interesting people. "I just met these two today, and I can tell we're going to be good friends," said Swatez of the young man and woman sitting next to him.
Harivilas and his other volunteers encourage questions about the restaurant's founding philosophies and the Krishna movement from those who step through My Sweet Lord Cafe's doors for the first time. They are also eager to discuss matters ranging natural supplements to the connection between Hunter S. Thompson and the comic strip Doonesbury. "I really want people to come here and share with each other. Not just food, but knowledge and experiences. People can come here, eat good food, feel good vibes and then leave feeling refreshed," said Harivilas.
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