Clay Ehmke, the co-owner, can be seen working in the kitchen through a small window to the back of the Savannah-based restaurant on the corner of Habersham Street, just some feet away from Troup Square park. Potted plants can be found on almost every window sill and shelf, and a string of fairy lights stretches around the intimate 50-seat space. A young server walks from the outdoor seating area to the kitchen, singing the indie rock song that is playing inside. At the outdoor seating area, almost every table is full, and there are residential houses around the restaurant. There are people walking by the restaurant constantly, most of them dog walkers. It is dinner time now, and the restaurant is filled with patrons eating pizza and burgers and drinking milkshakes and lattes.
Fox & Fig is Savannah’s only vegan restaurant. It has been in existence only about a year and a half, and it averages between $6,000 and $10,000 per day in sales, with over $1 million in total sales since opening. Ehmke expects that number to go up to $2 million next year.
“We’ve been busy since the day we opened,” Ehmke says, sitting at a table in the restaurant’s outdoor seating area facing Troup Square park. He is in his early 30s and wears a flat-billed cap, black-rimmed glasses and has reddish-brown facial hair, cropped close to his face.
Ehmke originally tried to start a vegan restaurant through the event called FastPitch through the entrepreneurial program Creative Coast, which was founded by the Savannah Economic Development Authority. At this event, a handful of aspiring entrepreneurs present their business ideas to a panel of investors/judges, and the panel decides whether or not they will fund the businesses by listening to only the entrepreneurs’ pitches. The event is similar to the ABC show, “Shark Tank.”
“I stood up there on that stage and I talked about my idea, and everyone was like, ‘won’t ever work, who do you think you are to think a vegan restaurant would work?’” Ehmke says, smiling. “And then we are one of the most successful restaurants in town, and so I get to laugh at that in hindsight.”
Ehmke decided to achieve his dream of starting a vegan restaurant by co-partnering with Jen Jenkins, the Savannah-based owner of Henny Penny Art Space & Café, The Coffee Fox and Foxy Loxy Café—all fox-related names, as Jenkins’s mother’s maiden name is Fox. Ehmke was first the general manager of Coffee Fox, and during his interview for the position, he told Jenkins that his end goal was to eventually open a vegan restaurant. He then helped Jenkins open Henny Penny. After a few years of working together, Ehmke and Jenkins went into business together, starting Fox & Fig.
Before all of this, Ehmke was from Buffalo, New York, where he was going to college for philosophy before dropping out and moving to Austin, Texas with his then wife. This is when Ehmke started to get into specialty coffee, and his dream to open a coffee shop began.
“I was really into cafes and the role they provide in society,” Ehmke says. “They’re like a meeting ground.”
Ehmke started managing various cafes around Austin. He also became vegan after being vegetarian for a while and started studying the art and science behind making coffee and vegan food. He also began studying about how great vegan restaurants are run in America.
“I got really into coffee, really into management and leadership, and at the same time, I got really into veganism,” Ehmke says. “It started as a health thing for me, and then I got into the ethics of it, and I got into the cuisine part of it, and then obviously the environmental benefits.”
Ehmke studied vegan cuisine for a long time in order to run a vegan restaurant correctly when the time came. He says that starting a vegan restaurant can go wrong in two different ways.
“You can go this raw healthy juice-bar thing, and that’s fine, but you can do that at home,” Ehmke says. “Anyone can blend celery and kale and some apple juice, or some apples, whatever. But also, you can’t go in the direction of fake Philly cheesesteak with the soy patty that tastes like steak and some fake Daiya cheese that’s just chemicals that taste like a cheese, because it’s so innovative now with modern vegan cuisine that you can culture and ferment vegan cheeses, nut cheeses, and you are doing the same processes as old French blue cheese.”
Fox & Fig is a coffee and brunch centric restaurant, and its style is inspired by Australian brunch cafés, which are known for having upper scale breakfast foods and strong coffee programs. At Fox & Fig, most entrees are between $10 and $15.
The menu items change seasonally, with the exception of a few mainstay dishes, and the current menu includes sandwiches and burgers made with plant-based proteins, eggless quiches, pizza, breakfast tacos, pancakes, various pastries, coffees and teas, macaroni and cheese and coconut cream milkshakes made with ice cream from Leopold’s, a popular ice cream store in Savannah.
Ehmke said his to sell vegan milkshakes is what influenced Leopold’s to start selling vegan ice cream.
“Two years ago, I met with the owner of Leopold’s, and we had a talk, and they never offered a vegan ice cream, and I helped them to design that recipe for their vegan ice cream,” Ehmke says. “I was like, ‘make this happen and I’ll buy it from you for my spot,’ and they made it happen and now they sell vegan ice cream at their spot. It’s good to see the changes in town that I’ve pushed.”
The menu at Fox & Fig is completely plant-based. There are no animal products used, as in meat, eggs, dairy or honey.
“The reason this is here is for vegan activism,” Ehmke says. “We care. We believe in veganism, but we don’t shout it, because our activism works that way, and if you shout it, it pushes them away.”
Ehmke disagrees with the ways that more abrasive vegans promote their activism, giving an example of vegans who stand outside of grocery stores with signs that read “Meat is Murder.” Ehmke believes that a better way to promote the cause is by making genuinely good vegan food that non-vegans can appreciate.
“Here’s this dish,” Ehmke says. “If it’s really good, and you had a really good experience, well, that happened to be all vegan. That’s where the passion comes from, I think. It’s doing good for the world. A lot of restaurants can’t say that.”
Ehmke plans on writing a vegan food and coffee book within the next year. He also plans to expand Fox & Fig by starting another one in Charleston next year, or by creating a quick-serve model of the restaurant and opening multiple locations across America within the next four years.
“If I’m a doctor, and I’ve been trained in how to give someone CPR, and there’s a dying person right there, it is my duty to do something about it,” Ehmke says. “So it’s like, if we can do vegan food better than anyone else, and no one is taking this nationally, and we have the ability to, then it’s our duty and responsibility.”
Apart from running Fox & Fig, Ehmke also works in the kitchen. He employs a few cooks, servers and hostesses, a good portion of whom are vegan.
“As far as the culture here, we have a safe environment,” Ehmke says. “It’s like a family here. A lot of the people have been here since day one. The people that work here are some of my best friends.”
Michele Mobley has been in the food service industry for five years now, and has been employed at Fox & Fig as a hostess since last July. She is wearing clear rimmed glasses and she speaks in a soft, friendly tone.
“I really like it here,” Mobley says, smiling. “I like the environment, the people, the food. This is probably my favorite restaurant that I’ve ever worked in. It’s very relaxing, not very stressful. Everyone just gets along.”
Mobley’s favorite dish is the gunslinger pancakes, a seasonal dish.
“It’s a bit on the sweeter side,” Mobley says. “We do like a cold-smoked butter on top which is really nice and interesting with espresso dust.”
Athena Leondoupoulou has been working as a server at Fox & Fig since last August. She has a long ponytail, speaks confidently and laughs a lot. Her favorite menu item is the fox burger, a mainstay.
“[Fox & Fig is] very family-like,” Leondoupoulou says. “It’s a very nice environment. The customers are pretty good, and I normally get regulars, as well.”
Leondoupoulou is from Greece, and moved to Savannah after learning how to speak fluent English. The Greek island she lived on is small, and is populated by about 800 people. She has been vegan for more than nine years, and she wanted to work at Fox & Fig because it is the only vegan restaurant in Savannah.
Jennifer Miller, a customer, comes to Fox & Fig about once a week. She has been vegan for more than 25 years. Fox & Fig is her favorite restaurant. Miller often brings non-vegan friends to the restaurant and they are always enjoy their visit.
“Tonight we had the cheese board, and that was phenomenal,” Miller says.
Peter Van Brussel, another regular customer, has been vegan for two and a half years.
“It’s a great vegan vibe, there’s not a lot of these kinds of places around here,” Van Brussel says.