Root and Bloom Café: Bringing Southern California cuisine to the Queen City

When you think of these three things—vegan, boho chic, and year-round sunshine—it’s likely you don’t think Buffalo. But that may be because you haven’t been to Root and Bloom Café…yet.

A restaurant that serves only plant-based dishes, Root and Bloom Café opened in an outdoor seasonal gazebo in June 2018, and by the middle of October opened doors at 423 Elmwood Ave. They serve brunch or meals seven days a week.

When James Ernst met Sarah Sendlbeck, they were young, bright-eyed high school students. He attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute; she attended Mount St. Mary Academy. They met doing theater, not knowing at that point what greater stage their lives might find down the road.

He went off to college in Rochester to study marketing communications and public relations, and she also went off to college in Rochester to study music therapy and entrepreneurship. Eventually Ernst and Sendlbeck married, but decided they wanted to leave their Western New York roots and see if they could blossom in Southern California.

So they took a year off from any responsibility except to themselves, and traveled around in a camper van, feeling quite boho. They relished the beauty of the earth, time spent together, and freedom from convention. Ernst worked for a vegan cheese company and in theater.

While in California, they took in the scenery and cooked all kinds of vegan dishes. “We always wanted to own our own business,” said Ernst. “Root and Bloom is a calling for both of us.”

Buffalo was also calling them, inviting them to return home, back to their roots.

So they left the land of sunny Joshua Tree Desert and headed home, with their heads not full of sugar plums, but plant-based menu items that they thought would go over well in the Queen City.

“We felt like Buffalo needed a vegan restaurant,” said Ernst, “and we wanted to be the ones who provided it.” After six months of testing recipes and the market, the Ernsts opened Root and Bloom in a little gazebo, bringing a “mish-mash of all our Southern California foods geared toward the Buffalo crowd.”

The couple, who lives in Clarence, said the hardest part of starting Root and Bloom was “figuring out permits and licenses.” Of course, they wanted their company to be compliant with city code, but sometimes it was challenging to know just what to do.

Before they officially opened, they launched a kick-start campaign and orchestrated a three-month trial plan. With their plan and budget in place, they renovated the outdoor gazebo space and by July, they were up and running. The response was so overwhelming that in August, they took over the lease at their present location, making it a warm and inviting destination in the city.

Unlike many startups, Root and Bloom didn’t rely on seed money or loans. “We boot-strapped everything,” said Ernst. “We used our tax refund and sold the camper van to get started.” All combined, including the campaign and a small business loan, netted them more than $12,000 to get going. Now, they continue to invest in themselves by putting profits right back into the café.

“Buffalo is a really strong community,” said Ernst. “We have not seen it anywhere else. It has a big city feel, but it’s small enough to feel like home.” In cities like Los Angeles and Boston, where they have lived, he said he felt disconnected.

If one reviewer’s comments are any indication—“I wish Root and Bloom would cater my whole life!”—the up-and-coming boho chic café will be planted in the landscape of Buffalo for a long time. “We are here to stay,” said Ernst. “We want to open two more vegan shops—ice cream and a vegan butcher shop—so we aren’t going anywhere.”

The Ernsts are gratified by a recent New York Times feature and by a visit from Dominick Thompson, vegan-athlete-activist and Instagram personality who was visiting Toronto but heard about Root and Bloom and stopped in for a bite.

As Root and Bloom has taken shape and grown, they have added a more robust menu, some 15 employees, and a mini-market of goods made by city folk. And now that they have grown from a sidewalk eatery to a full-fledged restaurant of its own merits, the couple not only manages the business, they also have to fit in family time. Ernst works six days a week, and his wife works three days, staying home to care for their daughter, Stella, who is 3 ½.

“Every Wednesday is family time,” Ernst said. “Just us. No phones. No interruptions.” After all, it all goes back to when James met Sarah. First things first.

Read more articles by Cynthia Machamer.

Cynthia Machamer earned a B.A. in writing from Houghton College and has more than 15 years of experience writing in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Buffalo in 2005, and her happiest moments are spent with her two grown children and her niece.
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