Our Wicked Healthy Interview Series features individuals who are making a big impact in the plant-based world and beyond. Today we’re featuring Bart Potenza, founder of Candle Cafe, Candle 79 and Candle Cafe West, premier vegan restaurants in New York City!
In 1984, Bart Potenza purchased a property in Manhattan’s Upper East Side that evolved from a juice bar into a full-service vegetarian eatery called Healthy Candle. From there, Bart and his partner, Joy Pierson, went on to open three more restaurants in NYC: Candle Cafe East ten years later (started with seed money from a lottery win on Friday the 13th!), followed by vegan landmark Candle 79 in 2003, and Candle Cafe West. They’ve also published three cookbooks, developed a frozen entree line, and regularly give back to environmental and animal welfare causes along the way.
We absolutely love what Bart has done for and in the vegan community, and how his convictions and connections to his community are reflected in his thriving business. For those who know Bart, his smile and grateful demeanor are infectious. We wanted to sit down with him and learn a bit more and what’s behind that smile, as well as discuss more about his mission and the wisdom he’s acquired as he recently celebrated his 81st birthday … Happy birthday, Bart!
First off, congratulations on your recent 81st birthday! What do you attribute your good health and success to?
Thank you! Nothing beats feeling healthy, strong, and vital so that you live life full out. Happily, I feel that way most days of my life. When I became plant-based some 26 years ago (in my 50s), I felt that an added edge was given to my already strong constitution. Opportunity and success grew from that energy, as well as the desire to give and do more with Joy, my business partner and wife.
How is Candle Cafe a reflection of your beliefs and values? Is there any significance behind the “79” in Candle 79?
It was organic, literally and figuratively. Most of our customers are not vegan, but for 34 years, they have loved and embraced our food (1984-2018). To this day, I’m surprised that more people don’t get the message about eating clean, organic, plant-based food.
The name Candle 79 was the upscale spinoff that landed on East 79th St. in NYC. Joy calls it our “sexier” restaurant that arrived just four blocks from the original & recently updated Candle Cafe.
What piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to open their own vegan restaurant or start their own vegan venture?
All the hard-working clichés abound when describing how we did it. I’m a great believer in mentorship and I had wonderful mentors all my life. Through several careers including marketing, acting, art-dealer, and restaurateur, I had formidable older men and women guide my personal growth and business acumen. Now, alas, I’m the “older guy” giving advice!
What’s the best thing going on in the New York City vegan scene right now and how has it changed since the 90s?
We were one of the first to bring fine dining, fine wines, and eco-bars to the vegan eating experience. Today the trend in most eating establishments is what we call “grab and go.” Not everyone has the time or money to sit down for a fine dining experience. It’s a mixed bag, but technology has allowed for more eating at one’s desk or workstation. Indeed, there are many more vegan options now compared to when we started. People have more choices to live a healthier lifestyle, and the smart ones are going for it big time!
You’ve done so much to support veganism and non-violence through your food—what are some other ways you support and advocate for animals? Do you have some favorite organizations or causes, or has a special case or experience really stuck with you?
Joy and I have had the privilege and pleasure of joining and supporting many animal rights organizations. Our biggest impact came many years ago when we visited Farm Sanctuary. Playing and frolicking with the animals was life changing for both of us, and it enhanced our already committed vegan lifestyle.
Tell us some of your favorite dishes from each of the three Candle Cafe locations!
Being Italian/American, I go “wicked crazy” for any and all pasta dishes at all three Candle restaurants. The chefs use an imaginative array of sauces and combos to make for a special treat each time. Of course a fine glass of organic red wine rounds out the experience! I also love our stir-fry dishes that continue to impress me with their explosion of flavors. Joy and I love to cook at home, and our culinary commitment led to three cookbooks that Joy co-authored with Jorge Pineda and Angel Ramos, our head chefs. I was happily the prep person and dishwasher for all three cookbooks!
As part of our THE WICKED HEALTHY COOKBOOK tour, Chad will be at your Candle Cafe West location on June 20 for a book signing and sharing some cocktails and tastes from the cookbook. We’re wicked excited and honored to share that evening with you and the Candle family!
As are we, and congratulations on your awesome cookbook … may the vegan force be with you!
Three Candle Cafe Locations
1307 3rd Ave. New York, NY 10021
154 East 79th St. New York, NY 10075
2427 Broadway New York, NY 10024