Root 66 has been on a remarkable journey. Santa Fe’s vegan café, where you can get comfort foods on a par with their less-healthy alternatives, went from food truck to café to outdoor dining to takeout only. Now, less than a year after opening as a dine-in eatery, it’s going into hibernation. Hopefully, it will reopen under the same name and new ownership this spring or summer.
In the meantime, you can still get menu items — like the mushroom Sardou bake, shepherd’s pie, curried hand pie, soft pretzels, and pumpkin cheesecake — while supplies last. And all of it is 100 percent plant-based.
“What we’re offering between now and hibernation time is a whole menu of bulk meals, frozen meals, and grab-and-go meals,” says Root 66 co-owner Rae Sikora.
“On the final weekend, which is going to be Valentine’s Day weekend, we’re going to be selling meals, but people can also order groceries from what’s left in terms of stock,” says Sikora.
The pop-up grocery store takes place from Friday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 14, at Root 66. The café is currently closed to walk-ins, but items can be ordered online for curbside pick-up.
“We’re looking at it as kind of a celebration of how much the staff and the manager accomplished during what was the most difficult time to have a restaurant,” says Sikora, who opened the business as a food truck in 2018 with Chef Gail Patak, JC Corcoran, Dave Holland, and their spouses. Originally located at the Santa Fe Brewing Co.’s Brakeroom on Galisteo Street, Root 66 offered comfort foods, including vegan cheeseburgers, vegan sausage and peppers, and potato skins, all served up from the food truck by Patak. When she left the company, the truck relocated to Albuquerque under new management, and the owners started looking for a brick-and-mortar location in Santa Fe.
“She had come all the way from Florida to be the chef for it,” says Sikora. “I think it got to be a bit much for her. She had never done an actual food truck before. A food truck has its own difficulties and challenges. It’s so weather dependent. That was the main thing. I think it was a little bit shocking for her. She was from Florida, and we get real winter. So that didn’t pan out.”
When a space on Lena Street became available, the owners began converting it into a café. “That was a huge undertaking,” Sikora says. “Right when we were ready to open our doors, COVID hit. The timing was crazy. More pessimistic people would be, like, ‘Are we cursed?’ But we’re more optimistic people. You roll with what’s there and adapt.”
So, Sikora and company hired Katlyn Badeaux as the new chef and continued selling full vegan meals under a program called “gourmet to go.” But, off and on, they were able to provide meals onsite when health restrictions eased and allowed for outdoor seating. Since March, dining indoors hasn’t been an option.
“Our café is small,” says Sikora. “There was no way to social-distance people indoors. It was a constant readjustment. ‘We can have outdoor seating,’ ‘Oh, no, we can’t have outdoor seating.’ We were always watching what was going on statewide — the governor’s proclamations — trying to navigate this.”
In December, Business Insider reported on a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, which found that 17 percent of U.S. restaurants have permanently shut down since the start of the pandemic. Root 66’s owners, no longer able to offer outdoor seating, are seeking to avoid a similar fate.
“Part of the joy of going out to eat is going out to eat. Santa Fe folks love to go to a restaurant. And they were loving sitting in our outdoor dining area, at the picnic table under this beautiful shade tree. As soon as we weren’t able to do that, sales went down quite a bit. We had to just really look at the numbers and say, ‘OK, what’s the best way to work with this and not just keep pouring money into it when we’re not having the sales we once had?’ ”
That’s when they decided to go into hibernation.
“It was difficult for Katlyn. She was driving from Albuquerque and trying to navigate COVID. She wanted to back out of it, and we understood. It’s been stressful. We are going to open again when COVID simmers down a little bit. This time, we’re going to look for someone who wants to be the owner and the manager.”
Sikora says there’s been interest locally and out of state in taking it over but, as yet, no deals have been made.
Whoever ends up taking over will have a fully equipped café that’s ready to go. Sikora, who’s also a writer and educator on topics of nonviolence and compassionate living, will remain a consultant.
“I understand Santa Fe, vegan cuisine, and the restaurant business,” she says. “I’ve had catering businesses. I’ve worked in the food industry for a lot of my life. In the beginning, it was a vegetarian catering business in Wisconsin. It was very successful. Three of us were able to go through college debt-free because of that catering business.”
Sikora’s seen interest in vegan cooking go from a fringe movement, with few options for its adherents, to a growing trend with more and more plant-based options offered in restaurants and grocery stores than ever before.
“I used to make my own tempeh. I’d start with soybeans, and I had an incubator that I made out of a cooler. I would just make everything from scratch. And you would never see the word ‘vegan’ on a package. Basically, it was product suicide if you put it on the package back then. Nobody would have gone for it.”
The decision to change her dietary lifestyle came after an incident that occurred when she was renting a cabin on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
“I heard a sound one day. It was awful. I got on my bike and rode over to the barn. They were loading up the male calves to take them to a veal facility. The sound I heard was the moms screaming for the babies and the babies screaming for the moms. These moms were bleeding on their chests from trying to get through the barbed wire to get to the babies. I just thought, I’m not letting my dollars support this kind of cruelty or violence.”
In addition to offering eco-friendly, gourmet, vegan choices to its customers, Root 66 donates 5 percent of its gross sales to Animal Protection Voters of New Mexico, a charitable nonprofit that promotes animal-friendly legislation at the local, state, and federal levels. Two of Root 66’s founders, Corcoran and Holland, serve on APVNM’s board.
However, the café’s raison d’être was never simply about health or animal welfare. It was about eating satisfying and delicious meals that are the equal of their non-vegan counterparts. They offer pizza with seitan (gluten-based) Andouille sausage and vegan mozzarella, for instance, and enchiladas with slow-cooked black beans, green chile, and mushrooms. Sikora says they’d often get repeat customers who don’t identify as vegan. “It was really about showing people that they could have their familiar favorites — mac and cheese, burgers — and still support something that was environmentally sound and cared for animals.”
With any luck, the new ownership will continue serving a rich and varied vegan menu, although they’ll be free to hire their own chef. “The building is owned by one of us,” Sikora says. “Whoever leases it out is going to get a great deal at a good rate and a lot of support in getting it rolling again.” ◀