Sue Davis has been running Counter Culture on East Cesar Chavez Street for more than a decade now. And in that time, she’s seen quite a bit of change.
When she moved in, her quaint, all-vegan restaurant was an anomaly in Austin. Many customers didn’t know what the word “vegan” meant. Her neighbors were a carwash and an abandoned building.
Now, she’s in the midst of a saturated “restaurant row.” She’s seeing an influx in Doordash and Uber Eats orders. The impacts the COVID-19 pandemic had on her sales are still reverberating.
The change in the neighborhood is reaching a breaking point for Sue — with almost 12 years of paying rent on the east side behind her, she hopes to soon be able to buy her own space and move out.
But before we dig into it with Sue, let’s reflect on Counter Culture’s legacy in East Austin.
Although her experience in the food industry began as a young person helping to set up buffets for her mom’s catering service, Sue’s career didn’t begin with food: it began with art.
A printer for fine art black and white photography, Sue didn’t like the change that came with the popularity of digital photography — specifically, she grew tired of sitting in front of a computer all day.
So, she returned to her roots in food.
Sue began by washing dishes in Los Angeles restaurants, eventually working her way into a role as a private chef. She also had a growing interest in animal rights, attending protests, and exploring vegetarian and vegan cooking through her love of Indian and Ethiopian food.
“Every time I would come to Austin to visit, I realized the lack of vegan food here compared to Los Angeles or San Francisco,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, if someone’s gonna do it, I’m invested here.’”
Building a business
Sue opened the first Counter Culture as a North Loop food truck in 2009, moving into her brick-and-mortar in 2011. At the time, there were just a few vegan food restaurants in the city, she said.
Although founding and running the restaurant on her own, Sue has stayed in the kitchen, cooking almost every day throughout the last 11+ years. She prides herself on the fact that Counter Culture creates its own seitan, vegan cheeses, and mayos, and pickles.
For her, vegan cooking is ever-changing and the possibilities of creating delicious food with plants is “endless.”
This month, Counter Culture is offering one of Sue’s favorite dishes, the Thanksgiving sandwich, a mouthwatering combination of house-made seitan, mashed potatoes, and golden gravy on a toasted hoagie roll with tart cranberry sauce on the side.
“People get intimidated that we’re vegan,” she said. “Really, it’s homemade comfort food.”
No shortcuts for sustainability
One thing customers might not know about Counter Culture is that it isn’t just a delicious vegan restaurant — it also diverts ~96% of waste from a landfill.
Sue uses farm-to-table produce largely sourced from local growers such as VRDNT, a woman-run farm in Bastrop. Counter Culture also sources companies for hard-to-recycle items such as plastic wrap or waxy cartons, and uses compostable to-go materials.
“We don’t use plastic at all. Our trash can for the whole building is about like this,” she said, miming the size of a roughly 10-gallon can. “An inspector always comes in and is like, ’Where’s your dumpster?’ And we don’t have one.”
Recovering and looking forward
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Sue said Counter Culture has been down about 20% in sales. Where to-go meals used to make up ~3% of orders, now it’s closer to 35%. The restaurant still hasn’t returned to full staff.
Counter Culture never saw slow times like it does now, Sue said — currently, “our dead spots are really dead. I feel like people don’t live around here anymore.”
But she has some ideas for bringing people back, and they’re in keeping with her personal missions related to animal rights, equality, and sustainability.
This week, Counter Culture reopened on Mondays for a charity bingo night benefiting the Central Texas Pig Rescue, a sanctuary for abandoned and abused pigs.
The now-weekly event offers prizes from local vegan businesses — the restaurant is also currently collecting old pumpkins (that haven’t been carved or painted) for the pigs to feast on.
The first event went great, Sue said, and this coming Monday, the proceeds will benefit Queertopia, an organization working to combat housing inequity.
Sue said she’ll keep the event running for the duration of November and see how things go. Long-term, however, her primary goal is still to relocate out of East Austin, possibly to University Hills or Windsor Park.
The restaurant industry is hard, but Sue said she has a personal fire fueling her to keep moving forward.
“I feel like in the restaurant industry you really have to be passionate about what you’re doing,” she said. “If it wasn’t for animal rights and sustainability … I don’t see myself doing it.”
Visit Counter Culture Tues.-Sun. from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. The restaurant’s new Monday hours are from 5-10 p.m., with bingo taking place from 6:30-8:30 p.m.