Thank you, Mother. This simple message of respect has become the mantra for the owners of Gracias Madre, Matthew and Terces Engelhart. The restaurant serves up delicious, soul-soothing plant-based Mexican food in the Mission District, with one key ingredient in every dish it makes: love.
Planting the Seeds
In a sense, Gracias Madre rose from a barren field. As the Engelharts explored San Francisco’s neighborhoods together, they realized there were no organic, non-GMO, plant-based Mexican restaurants in the city. There were taquerias, and plenty of establishments serving standard Mexican cuisine, but Matthew and Terces knew that people would appreciate organic plant-based Mexican fare. They were right. Gracias Madre has risen up to be a popular, much-loved dining experience to which locals and outsiders flock.
The backstory of the restaurant’s name is as rich as the pozole you’ll find served there.
The Engelharts have a profound love of Mexico – the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes, but especially the warmth of the people. Mexican culture consumed their hearts. Spending time in the Yucatán, Hidalgo, and Oaxaca, they were floored by the overwhelming hospitality and selflessness they found.
Latina mothers, especially, impressed them. The service and devotion that these women showed to their children, as well as to guests, was inspirational and awe-inspiring. “Many of our employees came from Mexico. In the restaurant, we have walls of pictures of their mothers, to acknowledge the service and devotion of the Latina mother,” says Terces. To the owners, the notion of “Madre” transcends human interaction, to encompass respect for the divine feminine and “mother energy.”
A Dream is Realized
Matthew, from upstate New York, and Terces, primarily from northern California, both ended up in San Francisco in 1999. Not long after they met, they teamed up to open Café Gratitude, a cozy vegan restaurant with a coffee-shop feel.
Still, feeling the magnetic pull of the Latin culture, they knew that organic plant-based Mexican food was their calling.
Why Mexican cuisine? Matthew relays, “People like Mexican food. It uses simple ingredients that are so flavorful. And we love the culture, the people, the food. We wanted to bring to the community our love of the country and culture.”
Terces had a Mexican restaurant several years earlier, in Pennsylvania. She already knew she could make great Mexican dishes and was ready to transfer her skill set to Gracias Madre. Matthew shares in many philosophies that Terces follows, and the two have supported each other along their journey.
The Engelharts bring a unique approach to how they run their business. They have developed what they call “sacred commerce.” The idea, Terces explains, is “to build people, to develop a skill set of service. It is all about personal growth and transformation. By providing the right environment, our workers grow into the best versions of themselves.”
The Impact of COVID-19
Like many restaurants, Gracias Madre has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. It gave it a go for a few days after stay-at-home orders began to materialize, but the owners chose to shut it down soon after. On May 20, the restaurant joyfully reopened. At this time, service is only take-out and delivery (through GrubHub, Caviar, and DoorDash).
The shutdown has been devastating to the restaurant. Most of the workforce at Gracias Madre had to be let go. One manager even moved back to Los Angeles, unable to afford the San Francisco rent during this crisis. Only a handful of the staff has been hired back so far.
Love reigns, though. Even in this buzz-in and buzz-out takeout system that restaurants are forced into, the Engelharts are striving to maintain a warm community feeling at the restaurant. “We want to supply reliability and consistency,” states Terces, “and to have meaningful interactions. We are big with the love. We see you. We hear you. We appreciate you.”
Matthew agrees and adds another angle. “We provide the best food possible. And this builds up immune systems. Health care means self-care. We can’t all rely on the government. We need to eat well, take care of ourselves and each other.”
Gracias Madre, in the owners’ words, is “cheering San Francisco on.” Supporting the restaurant, by enjoying a delicious plate of organic, plant-based flautas de camote, sounds like a great way to return the sentiment.