Makini Howell, the owner of a vegan mini-empire which includes Plum Bistro, Plum Burger and more, has been named one of the “world’s most creative chefs.”
Inside Seattle, you might hear of Makini Howell in low-key ways. The restaurateur’s mini-empire, a branch of her family’s vegan-food business, began in 2009 with Plum Bistro, an upscale restaurant on Capitol Hill. It now includes a food truck (Plum Burgers), a casual spot in Seattle Center’s Armory (Plum Pantry), a dessert and soft-serve-ice-cream shop (Sugar Plum), a catering company, and, most recently, a salad bar (Plum Chopped).
Outside Seattle, people see Howell as a chef with star power. Singer Stevie Wonder hired Howell as personal chef for his 2015 “Songs In The Key Of Life” tour. Queen Latifah invited Howell on her talk show to make BBQ oyster-mushroom burgers and dairy-free milkshakes. (“The only vegan-burger truck in the nation, and it’s run by a woman!” the Queen cheered on TV.) Actor Joaquin Phoenix blurbed her cookbook, “Plum” (Sasquatch Books, $29.95), as did Grammy-winners India.Arie and Common. (Full disclosure: I worked for Sasquatch on that cookbook’s editorial team, though I am not a Grammy winner.) Now, Howell joins a list of Seattle’s award-laden big names — Tom Douglas, Renee Erickson, Maria Hines, Holly Smith — cited in a heavy-hitting new book, “Kitchen Creativity” by Karen Page (Little, Brown & Co., $40) amassing wisdom from “the world’s most creative chefs.”
From her new production kitchen on Capitol Hill, Howell says the nature of the business keeps it lean and focused even as it expands.
“It’s a small part of a small market, so my concepts are small — but mighty,” she said.
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Stockpots simmered on the burners, pastry line cooks worked on batches of cookies, the food truck pulled out loaded for the day, and workers stocked the salad bar with ingredients inspired by Wonder’s meals, including seasoned plantain chips and “baconish” vinaigrette. At the sweet shop, the fall menu was rolling out, featuring flavors like pumpkin-sage ice cream with toasted nutmeg and “golden milk” snickerdoodle cookies.
Howell, 40, was raised eating a vegan and organic diet long before the ideas were mainstream, with entrepreneurial parents (and, later, siblings) in the industry. Their successes included the Hillside Quickies sandwiches that her mother Niombi created, a staple of Northwest co-op markets and later the family’s own sandwich shops. Howell grew up working at Quickies Too, their diner in Tacoma, spent years as a graphic designer and clothing designer in New York City, then returned to the Northwest to found the sort of “gratifying” vegan restaurant she wasn’t finding elsewhere. She sees veganism as “the food of the future,” one where even hard-core meat-eaters will need more plant-based foods.
One key to success, she said, was Plum’s location in developer Liz Dunn’s mixed-use building on busy 12th Avenue, providing steady foot traffic and an omnivorous audience.
“(Dunn) believes in smaller concepts, she believes in creative concepts, she believes in building an urban village,” Howell said.
Another key was surely dishes like the creamy vegan mac ’n’ cheese that impressed authors Page and Andrew Dornenburg, whose flavor-pairing books are beloved by chefs. They first highlighted Howell in their “Vegetarian Flavor Bible” book, and said vegetarian chefs are often on the cutting edge of creative cooking.
Planning Sugar Plum on 15th Avenue in 2015, Howell thought of her own childhood, when she would have loved a soft-serve-ice-cream cone, and how she wanted something “old-school Capitol Hill” for the changing street. Then Wonder asked her to join the tour. It meant leaving town at a pivotal time, but, she said, “It was Stevie Wonder. Would you have gone?”
She had longtime employees she trusted to keep the business going, then added new staffers from the South who she met through the tour. It was “such an enlightening experience,” from studying how kitchens were organized in big hotels to observing how Wonder, an “open, kind, family-oriented person,” managed his crew.
“Eighty-five people moving across the country, and the man never lost his temper.”
Another roadblock hit when she lost the lease on her catering kitchen, a potential catastrophe in a city with shrinking space and soaring rents. But Dunn offered her a kitchen spot down the street from Plum Bistro, with room for the retail salad bar out front.
It’s not huge, but “I took some of that New York living I did for 10 years and remembered how to streamline,” she said.
Even with her successes, she said vegan food is still a hard sell, one she still tries to “reshape” and market toward the general public.
“My mom has been selling tofu sandwiches since I was like 13,” she said. “I know what it is to be constantly knocking on the door (saying) hey, I’ve got a good product.”
Inside or outside Seattle, she seems to be making a mark. “I’ve worked really hard to make veganism something delicious.”