For years, Chuck Stuthard found eating at most vegetarian restaurants a challenge.
"It took an hour to prepare the food and then it tasted like cardboard," he said with a laugh. "I'd always wanted to show people you really can eat healthy and have it taste good."
Based on the popularity of his small Nevada City eatery, "Fudenjüce," Stuthard has achieved his goal.
Meat-loving truckers who pull off of Highway 49 for a bite are surprised by how flavorful their vegetarian dishes are, and one Yuba City man regularly drives up to Fudenjüce just for the crunchy vegan salad and Middle Eastern wrap.
With restaurants known for being a risky enterprise - vegetarian restaurants even more so - Stuthard is grateful his customers have embraced his desire to run a "conscious-driven," not "profit-driven" business for the past seven years.
"It's a blessing that we're able to run this kind of a business with this kind of food," he said. "We really want to promote healthier choices. We're committed to having the best, most affordable ingredients."
When "Planet Juice" came up for sale in 2005, Stuthard and four friends snapped up the small business and began expanding food offerings. Opting for a name that better reflected their menu in 2007, Stuthard sponsored a contest among Nevada Union High School art students to come up with a new logo to go with the whimsical, fake German word, "Fudenjüce" - the winner received free smoothies for a year.
"In terms of the menu, we wanted to figure out what was working and slowly phase out what wasn't," said Stuthard. "Those first few years were tough - I put everything into it in terms of resources. We didn't want to out-price our customers. We've only raised our prices once in seven years."
Due to the nature of the food business, managerial decisions needed to be made on the spot and over time the other four owners turned over their share to Stuthard.
The extensive menu includes local vegetarian favorites such as fruit smoothies, rice bowls, wraps, soups, sandwiches, a kids menu, and a vast array of juices made fresh to order.
The food business was not foreign to Stuthard, as his family once owned Whitey's Jolly Kone, a popular hamburger eatery in West Sacramento. In addition, Stuthard came aboard Fudenjüce with a solid business background, having worked in real estate and for several large banks.
"I've worked in the corporate world, but I eventually said 'no' to corporate values - I didn't want my business to be driven by profit," he said, with a smile. "I've never made less money, but I've never loved what I do more."
With his goal of running a business with a conscience, Stuthard buys local organic produce whenever possible and contributes to community organizations like Sober Grad Night, the Cherry Festival in North San Juan and local fire departments. He commissioned local artists to paint a mural and helps to fund and honor food vouchers for those in need. The vouchers cover the cost of specific nutrient-rich dishes for individuals who are unable to afford regular meals.
"People come first - I'm proud to say we've kept that commitment," he said. "We love our customers. Just because something is inconvenient doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. We're lucky to be in a position to give back."
Fudenjüce, which has a staff of 10, boasts a new shaded deck, an air-conditioned dining room, outside misters and wireless Internet access. Planters are often filled with edible greens. Loyal customers feel a sense of ownership and regularly give suggestions and words of support, said Stuthard, who is considering opening similar businesses in Davis and mid-town Sacramento.
"I'd like to follow in the footsteps of a famous CEO who started out giving 10 percent of his profit to charity and keeping 90 percent - but by the end of his career he had flipped it around and was giving away 90 percent," said Stuthard. "I don't measure the quality of life monetarily. If I ever give up this business, I can walk away feeling good about what we've done. What's most important is our message: 'You're welcome here.'"
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4203.