Curb to Cafe: Vegetation Plant Food
is Growing Something Great
By Adam Spafford
Photography by Jordan Randall
In the short 15 months since readers met Rima Schillinger’s Vegetation Plant Food in our 2022 Taste issue, the plant-based chef, then operating out of Catapult, has grown her tasty endeavor into a commercial kitchen and charming cafe at 1437 E. Gary Road. What appears like rapid expansion is, no surprise, the result of years of dedication to perfecting a cuisine that appeals not just to vegans but eaters of all stripes.
Rima’s journey to a vegan lifestyle began when she made a connection between a family history of disease and dietary choices.
“I came across several documentaries about seven years ago,” she said, as she listed titles including “Forks Over Knives,” “Eating You Alive,” and “The Game Changers.” These documentaries, supported by insights from doctors, highlighted the benefits of a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Her interest grew deeper as she consumed books and podcasts on the subject, and even completed an online course through Cornell University to further educate herself about the rationale behind plant-based diets.
Creating vegan meals for herself and her family soon evolved into offering meals at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market. But it was Rima’s transformative stint at Catapult that she credits with her success thus far.
“The short answer is ‘everything’,” she says when asked what she learned at the incubator, “because I didn’t know much about business going into this.”
“[Catapult Kitchen Director] Maggie Leach offered invaluable insights, starting me at ground zero and bringing me up to speed quickly: how to cook in a commercial kitchen, how to get licensed, conform to regulations, purchase insurance—she showed me how to do all of that. The network of fellow entrepreneurs and mentors there was invaluable. I always felt like someone there had my back, and if they didn’t know an answer, they’d find out for me.” Even now, having left the nest, she can still rely on support from Catapult to navigate these challenges.
“I didn’t know much about business going into this.”
– Rima Schillinger
Her own commercial kitchen allows Rima to experiment with new recipes and be more productive than ever before, producing a variety of meals, puddings, soups and salads.
“We rotate foods weekly,” she says, keeping things fresh and exciting for customers. Each week there are two made-to-order items, a variety of smoothies, an assortment of grab-and-go items, and some delicious drink options hailing from the in-house espresso machine. “Not only is there something hot when you come for lunch but there are also meal options for later in the week.”
Inspiration for her culinary creations comes from all over the internet, including Instagram and TikTok. “There’s so much content available, so many people doing extremely cool things,” she explains. Whenever she travels with her husband, they seek out vegan restaurants. Even closer to home, in Tampa and St. Pete, they’ve discovered a wealth of excellent vegan eateries.
Perfecting her own dishes from that inspiration takes time. “It’s a pretty long process,” Rima says. “While I can confidently create good food anytime, we say it must be ‘Vegetation-worthy’—that is, every dish on the menu has to hit the right notes.”
“While I can confidently create good food anytime, we say it must be ‘Vegetation-worthy’—that is, every dish on the menu has to hit the right notes.”
Customer feedback also influences the menu. The Vegetation Plant Food team actively listens to its patrons, aiming to incorporate their suggestions and preferences. This collaborative approach ensures a satisfying menu that represents various cuisines and flavors.
Though she’s committed to a plant-based diet herself, Rima’s food philosophy doesn’t include persuading others to adopt it. Instead, she simply offers delicious food and lets it speak for itself, which attracts those who don’t eat vegan.
“I don’t think I’m going to win anyone over to the vegan camp–I’m not a pusher,” she says. “I think that most people understand the importance of incorporating more vegetables into their diet. With Vegetation Plant Food, we can provide tasty and healthy options that make it easy to do that. We don’t rely on mock meats and we make everything from scratch.”
Reflecting on the journey, Rima considers the people she’s encountered as the single highest point.
“I met so many customers at Catapult who are now customers of the cafe, and they are all just the nicest people.”
She’s grateful for the supportive community that has embraced her venture and her food. There haven’t been particular low points, simply challenges through which she’s had to persevere, garnering the energy to make decisions amid ambiguity. Rising food costs have placed a burden on the business because, as Rima notes, “It’s inevitable to an extent, but I hate raising prices because I want everyone to feel they’re getting a great value.”
Rave reviews suggest that Vegetation Plant Food is indeed hitting the right notes. Customers can savor a meal in the dining area, have a coffee or espresso, and enjoy good company.
“We love it when our customers sit, eat, and relax in the cafe, then grab-and-go a meal for later,” she says. Rima’s even sowing the seeds of a new crop of opportunity through partnerships with local institutions–like hospitals–to provide nutritious meals for visitors and staff. “Building relationships to provide grab-and-go meals on site is where I see us growing.”