FALL RIVER — With more and more folks turning to plant-based eating, vegan restaurants have sprouted up all over in recent years.
Up until 2019, Fall River — an area saturated with Portuguese fare and endless offerings for meat-lovers — had few places to turn for people in search of healthy, meatless options.
That is until Lisa Normandin, who saw an appetite locally for plant-based cuisine, opened the city’s first all-vegan eatery, Sweet Rose Cafe.
“It’s a pretty unique place,” said Normandin, a lifelong city resident. “We are a completely vegan cafe which is different for this area and I think it was really needed.”
Healthy, vegan, gluten-free and, most importantly, delicious? Sweet Rose Cafe ticks all those boxes.
Normandin, a former teacher with many years of experience under her belt in the food service industry, launched Sweet Rose Cafe in September 2019 with a vision of offering flavorful vegan breakfast and lunch fare that even meat-eaters would enjoy.
Since then it has taken off. In fact, it recently earned a spot on Yelp’s “Best 100 Places to Eat in New England,” no small feat for a small cafe in the Spindle City, not typically a vegan-friendly destination like Boston or Providence.
“I think about how many amazing restaurants there are around here so for me it really was an honor.. I am amazed we were on that list,” Normandin said.
The 268 Highland Ave. cafe ranked No. 59 on a list of eateries spanning the six New England states that have proven crowd-pleasers among users of the review website.
“I was definitely surprised, it’s awesome,” Normandin said. “Honestly I think it just says a lot about our staff and our customers.”
Who would have thought a vegan joint would catch on in this corner of the SouthCoast? Normandin never had doubts.
“I knew that we would do well but we’re definitely a lot busier than I had anticipated,” she said.
According to Normandin, business was booming from the get-go, with locals excited to try something new, and Sweet Rose has only continued to blossom over the past three years. Forced to close for a couple of months amid COVID, Normandin said she was nervous to reopen post-pandemic but she found traffic only increased.
“We have a lot of regular customers so coming in and seeing them everyday and getting to know them has been awesome,” she said.
While a good amount of their customers are local, Normandin said they draw patrons from all over.
Located across the street from Charlton Memorial Hospital, the cafe gets a lot of people stopping in on their lunch breaks from there and other area businesses. On the weekends, regulars come in from Boston, the Cape and Providence.
“And we still get a lot of people who still come in and are like, ‘Wow, I live in the area and I didn’t even know you were here,'” she said.
A decade ago, vegan food was an oddity, often undefined to the average person. And even today, many folks know what vegan fare — food prepared without any animal products, such as meat, dairy, eggs or honey — doesn’t include, but miss the plethora of tasty options the plant-based diet does have to offer.
“I still have people that will say to me ‘what do you eat, tofu and salads?'” Normadin said.
Normandin said she’s proud of the fact that Sweet Rose Cafe has helped introduce locals to the vast and innovative, plant protein alternatives and make believers out of naysayers.
“I think it’s opened people’s eyes in terms of what vegan eating can be like,” she said.
According to the app Happy Cow, which lists vegan restaurants and restaurants with vegan options, there are currently about a dozen restaurants with vegan menu items across Greater Fall River. Sweet Rose stands out for its exclusively vegan focus.
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“It’s really cool. And people do it for different reasons too so we get a lot of people who do it for ethical reasons, for the environment, for health reasons … it’s definitely increasing,” she said.
But it’s not just vegan foodies who are drawn to Sweet Rose, she was quick to point out.
“Probably about half of our customers aren’t vegan, they’re just looking for different, healthier options,” Normandin said.
So what’s the draw of a place like Sweet Rose Cafe? It’s a small place that’s big on flavor, with a pretty extensive menu to boot.
According to Normandin, the taco wrap is the highlight of their menu — filled with vegan taco meat, tomatoes, black beans, romaine lettuce, avocado, jalapenos, vegan cheese, tortilla chips, vegan sour cream, salsa and chipotle sauce.
Sweet Rose also has many fans of their sweet potato black bean burgers and roasted squash paninis.
As far as bakery items, don’t sleep on their yummy cinnamon rolls. They’re only offered on the weekends and often sell out, so reserve your order first thing in the morning. They also take pre-orders for bakery items of 12 or more.
Normandin said she uses customer feedback from Yelp and Google reviews, as well as in-person, to guide some of the choices she makes in her business — from tweaks to the menu to ideas for specials.
Dishes that started out as specials and were so popular they made their way onto the regular menu include their Buffalo panini (plant-based Buffalo chicken, banana peppers, red onions, vegan cheese, and vegan ranch on a ciabatta roll), hummus and tabouleh bowl, quinoa bowl, and a chorizo and pepper panini (vegan chorizo with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, chipotle mayo and vegan cheese on a ciabatta roll).
Normandin noted everything can be made gluten-free, so a lot of people come into Sweet Rose specifically for that and their gluten-free bakery items.
While the space has largely remained unchanged — with six tables inside for dine-in guests and outdoor seating on the front porch — Normandin said they’ve made some changes since their 2019 debut.
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Sweet Rose started as a vegetarian cafe — offering dairy and eggs — before shifting to completely vegan about a year and a half ago.
They also shifted from seven days to five and shortened their hours amid COVID due to staffing issues, which she found worked best for them in the long run.
Sweet Rose is now open Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and closed Monday and Tuesday.
While she’s received plenty of encouragement from patrons to expand her business to other parts of the region, Normandin said for now she remains focused on building her Fall River location.
“I’m just hoping to continue our success,” Normandin said.