"You shouldn't feed people shit."
That's an umbrella mission statement for Sarkis Vartanian, the owner of Daily Dose Cafe. His tiny restaurant is hidden in a brick-lined alley in Downtown Los Angeles, which functions as a bit of an oasis in the heavily industrialized but transforming Arts District.
Even when the sun beats down on the rest of the street, Daily Dose's patio—all eating here is al fresco—is perpetually pleasant. Lush greenery covers the walls, tall buildings keep the narrow dining area shaded for much of the day, strings of lights hang from above, birds chirp with abandon, and there's even the odd smattering of graffiti here and there, keeping it real. It's an LA Instragrammer's dream.
Regulars, a big part of the cafe's clientele, start streaming in early. While the ambiance is a draw, so too is the health-conscious menu, though Vartanian prefers to call his food "nutritious." Daily Dose is the kind of place that you can eat at every day (disposable income permitting—most items go for around $12) without wrecking yourself.
In some ways, Daily Dose is an answer to the health food restaurants of the past as well as the ubiquitous gourmet burger establishments of today. The stereotypical tofu and wheat germ has been replaced with egg dishes in the morning and hearty bowls and sandwiches at lunch, but nutrition is a priority, and you won't find any butter-basted burgers here.
Instead, roasted Japanese yams accompany eggs, vegetables abound, avocado is generously dispensed, and meats are sustainably sourced. No refined sugar is used, and sweeteners lower on the glycemic index are preferred. (Vartanian does make one exception for an ancho chili jam that contains sugar. "Because it's the best," he says.) He also gets his produce from local farmers who don't use pesticides, and he grows his own leafy greens in vertical garden towers behind the restaurant.
This type of eating is an extension of Vartanian's own habits, which he only came to practice after excessive weight gain, some personal challenges, and a health crisis.
He says his problems with food first surfaced when his wife became pregnant; he splurged on ice cream and other calorie-dense foods that she was craving and ended up gaining 70 pounds
"No excuse, but I joined her at every meal," he says. "She gained 70 pounds, I gained 70 pounds. The difference is that she lost the 70 pounds after she had the baby, and I didn't. I just continued on gaining throughout the second baby."
His high-pressure job in the fashion industry only contributed to his unhealthy trajectory. Generally stressed out and strapped for time, Vartanian hit up fast food joints on a regular basis, eating at McDonald's at least four times a week and drinking gallons of soda regularly. "Everything was drive-thru. I never took time to eat, never took time to rest," says Vartanian.
But while his diet was in tatters, he justified his harried lifestyle with the fact that business was good and growing. Then 9/11 happened, sparking a chain of events that killed his company. "We lost everything. I was broke," he says. His loss included his job, house, and family—his wife and children moved away to Toronto in 2004. "That three years was a really weird time. Everything was too surreal. It was like a nightmare."
Somewhere in the midst of the upheaval, even though he'd lost some weight by giving up soda and french fries, Vartanian was up to almost 300 pounds. With his kids gone, and after countless nights spent sleeping in his office and "eating crap food," he began to realize the depth of his problem. His solution was to get out of town.
Vartanian spent six months traveling in Eastern Europe, which required a lot more walking that he was used to. The apartment he was staying in had no bath, so he was forced to join a gym for shower privileges. Eventually, he started using the exercise equipment, too. When he came back to the states, he was down to 220 pounds.
In LA, he kept up his physical activity and resumed his life, delving into real estate development. By 2009, he'd reached a weight he was happy with and had started designing a burger restaurant with a focus on grass-fed meats. But just when things were looking up, he was diagnosed with cancer.
"I lost all this weight," says Vartanian. "I've gotten healthy, I look fantastic, and I feel fantastic, so what do I do now about surviving this cancer?"
He watched Food Inc. at the suggestion of a friend, began researching nutrition, and very gradually became a vegetarian. He also learned about the effects of pesticides on the body and made the switch to organic produce and a nutrient-rich diet. Once he gave up on the burger bar, his research became the basis for the menu he would create at the Daily Dose, which he envisioned as "an honest food business."
Vartanian doesn't believe in a one-size-fits-all diet, and he's not interested in converting anyone to vegetarianism, per se, though he does tout the human and environmental benefits of cutting down on meat consumption. However, the Daily Dose does offer poultry and pork, and when he first formulated his menu, he centered it on five meat-centric sandwiches. He decided to use specials to offer vegan and vegetarian options.
"That gave me the opportunity to play around with food," he says. "You know, I think it's harder to cook vegetables than meat. It's a lot harder to be creative and satiate your customers with more of a vegetarian and grain-based diet than meats."
Sexing up nutrition has been a goal for Vartanian from the beginning, and his permanent "veggie-centric" options have grown since the Daily Dose opened in 2012. His signature item, The Farmer, is perhaps the best illustration of his ethos. The sandwich is piled high with layers of purple yams, whatever squash happens to be in season, guacamole, a veggie patty, tomatoes, pesto, and that ancho chili jam on olive bread. It's tasty, colorful and keeps you full for hours. And even though it packs in a lot of nutrition, it's not boring. It even has burrata on it, for goodness sake.
When asked if he thinks restaurants like his are the future (even as steak houses and building the biggest, baddest burger are still in vogue in LA), Vartanian says that if left to their own devices, many chefs would probably choose to cook more simply and with a greater emphasis on vegetables. But with the industry as it is, there are many roadblocks.
"Chefs have a lot to think about. Chefs have their owners to deal with, they have rent to deal with, they have payroll to deal with, they have investors to deal with," he says. "All of these things may have a direct effect on what they serve and how they serve it."
For his part, he insists he'll never open a conventional restaurant that opens him up to such pressures: "This may bite me in the ass, but I'd much rather shut down or do something else. I think we owe it to our customers to provide them with healthy options. I think you do a disservice when you feed people shit."