Alison Collins says people don't have to compromise taste to enjoy the vegan and gluten-free creations she serves at Boots Bakery & Lounge, a new downtown eatery, bakery, coffee shop, and bar.
Collins quietly opened the restaurant in June. It's her first storefront venture, although she's experienced in vegan baking and bartending, having done both most recently for Mizuna, which still features her vegan carrot cake.
"I've always done vegan baking," she says. "People want it. People have ordered cakes from me for years."
A vegan diet is a specific form of vegetarianism that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products, and all ingredients derived from animals. Some other forms of vegetarian diets, by comparison, include dairy, poultry, and fish.
Boots occupies 1,200 square feet of floor space in the former Rocket Bakery location at 24 W. Main and has a seating capacity of 45 people inside, plus another 20 or so on the sidewalk patio.
In addition to Collins, the restaurant employs eight people, and friends often help out in the kitchen.
Collins was a practicing vegan, but gave in to cravings for cheese during her second pregnancy. Since she's started up Boots, though, she hasn't had much opportunity to be nonvegan, "because this is where I am," she says.
She recently featured one nonvegan iteman egg frittatawhich is a fluffy variation of an open-faced omelet or quiche.
Collins puts in long hours, coming in early in the morning, well before the restaurant's 6 a.m. opening time, to survey the refrigerator, shelves, and pantry, for inspiration. In the mornings, when not in the kitchen, she might be a barista, serving Roast House Coffee, from a Spokane roaster. Come evenings, she's the bartender, maximizing the business hours for the establishment.
Her ever-changing fare includes "whatever strikes my fancy," created mostly from organic produce grown by five local farmers.
"I'm OK with whatever produce I have in front of me," Collins says. "I tell farmers to bring in whatever they want, and I make the stuff from there."
Putting such decisions in produce growers' hands helps ensure that they deliver items that they're most proud of, she says. Sometimes getting vegetables that meet her high standards can be a challenge, and she often turns to her favorite markets to augment the day's ingredients, she says.
"Here, the vegetable is the showcase," Collins says.
Recent vegetable items have included a "power greens" plate with kale, bok choy, and mustard greens; Chinese sweet potato salad; and a dish made with roasted sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots with hazelnut-mint dressing.
Food selections are displayed deli-style in a glass case. Customers can combine a couple of items to create a meal, often for under $10, she says.
Display items are marked with tags describing which ones are gluten-free or soy-free.
Gluten is a wheat protein that's a health hazard for people who are allergic or sensitive to it.
"Some people also have problems with soy," Collins says.
Customers won't see the same things offered at the counter every day.
Collins says she has no interest in keeping a regular menu, although her one constant item will be the vegan carrot cake.
"It pays the bills," she says.
During one recent day she baked eight full-sized carrot cakes and 200 cupcakes and expected to sell them all within a few days.
The kitchen is small and simple, she says. She cooks only with an induction oven, rice cooker, and an open-range top.
The kitchen doesn't have a lot of storage, so nothing stays around long enough to lose its freshness, she says.
"We don't have much waste," she says.
Collins says she started experimenting with vegan baking 25 years ago, because too many vegan foods tasted like granola or even lacked flavor.
"It's always my goal not to make things taste vegan," she says.
Collins says she's a champion of eliminating nonvegan people's fear of tofu, which is a curd made from mashed soybeans that provides an important source of protein for people who rely on vegetables for their nutrition.
"Tofu is a vegan staple," Collins says. "When it's prepared correctly, it can taste like anything you want it to."
It also can be prepared in a variety of textures. Chopped tofu she uses in Boots' eggless salad sandwich is indistinguishable in texture from chopped boiled eggs, she says.
Collins even uses variations of tofu to simulate cheese, such as in her "cheesy" mushroom kale pasta.
Other ingredients successfully mimic the texture of tuna in Boots' "tuna-esque" sandwich.
The restaurant is decorated with a large old-West looking wooden bar assembled by her husband, Arden Pete, a finish carpenter. It's illuminated with hanging lamps fashioned from upside-down blender pitchers. Such eccentric accents were added with the help of friend and artist Dan Spalding, who owns the building.
In the narrow dining area, tables and walls are decorated by local artists. Behind the bar, exposed bricks reveal a painted bull that was part of a tobacco ad when that wall was the exterior of the building next door.
Despite the restaurant's quiet opening, business has been increasing steadily, Collins says, adding that she plans to celebrate an official grand opening early this month, now that she's gained some initial experience running the restaurant.
"My biggest surprise is the amount of cooking I'm doing," she says. "I'm chronically cranking out a lot of food."
Collins had been planning to shield the kitchen from the seating area, but now she may keep it open.
"It's the only way people can talk with me," she says.
Collins, who's always kept her recipes to herself, has started writing them down so employees will be able to prepare the dishes.
"I need to be able to not be in the kitchen so much," she says. "I need to be out with the crowd, bartending."
She says she expects the bar will provide up to 25 percent of the restaurant's revenue.
"It's happening slowly and surely," Collins says. "I just need to figure it out."
She hired most of the employees before she even met them.
"People heard about what I was planning and put their resumes under the door, and I followed up with a crazy questionnaire," she says. "It's a tight team, because they all started at ground zero and helped me set it up."
The business name comes from a nickname given to Collins by friends, referring to Bootsy Collins, the self-described "bass in yer face" musician of Parliament-Funkadelic fame.
"It has nothing to do with boots," she says.
While Collins claims that Boots is unique in its specialized combination of vegan and gluten-free fare, gourmet coffee, and adult libations, Spokane has several vegan-friendly restaurants that also offer gluten-free items in addition to nonvegetarian fare. They include Mizuna, at 214 N. Howard; Stella's Cafe, at 917 W. Broadway; and Sante Restaurant & Charcuterie, at 404 W. Main.
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