Tucked into an east Charlotte strip mall, at the end of a long sunlit patio, is perhaps Charlotte’s best-kept vegan secret. Visitors to the hip yet unpretentious café EastSide Local Eatery in the Eastway Crossing shopping center are in for some of the city’s best vegan and vegetarian fare, though that comes with a side order of apparent contradictions.
The café specializes in meat-free dishes, but the owners didn’t plan on serving food in the first place, setting their sights instead on opening a juice bar. Discerning diners trek across the country to hang out here, but many locals are still surprised that the eatery has been their neighbor for almost two years. The popular Impossible Burger — done up Carolina style with veggie chili, mustard, slaw and a choice of cheese or vegan cheese — is prepared in this tiny, 600-square-foot café at the end of the patio. But to get one, or anything else on EastSide Local’s extensive menu, you first have to find the place.
“People usually walk down the sidewalk and they don’t know where they are,” says café co-owner Gina Stewart. “We have this beautiful patio and garden, so we look like a garden shop.”
Every day, at least two or three people stumble upon the café asking how long the establishment has been at the shopping center and expressing surprise that it’s there, Stewart maintains.
There’s a lot of greenery interspersed among socially distanced seating as we head down the patio to pick up a pair of burgers on a recent afternoon. Prints of tarot cards and other artwork adorn the patio. Some of the art is for sale, particularly a half-dozen hand-crafted bird houses hanging on the wall.
Gina Stewart Gets Into Acting
Stewart runs the café with Brenda Gambill, who also runs vegan/vegetarian catering company Over the Moon Raw Food and develops EastSide Local’s recipes in the kitchen. The two women joined forces 35 years ago to start writing songs for a rock ‘n’ roll band and have been a force ever since.
EastSide Local is not Stewart’s first gig in retail and food service. She managed Common Market in Plaza Midwood for close to five years, and she was front-of-house manager at South End restaurant Pewter Rose from 1999 to 2007.
But she didn’t start out in the restaurant industry. Stewart trained as a singer, actress and musician; she’s proficient on guitar and banjo. In 1986 Stewart graduated from the University of North Carolina Charlotte where she studied dance and drama. She performed with the Charlotte Shakespeare Company and the Tarradiddle Players, which eventually became part of Children’s Theater of Charlotte. In 1990, The Charlotte Observer called Stewart “One of the area’s most visible stage actresses.”
In 1994, Stewart appeared in the one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In addition to professional local and regional theater, Stewart jumped into film and television work during Charlotte’s production boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. She appeared in The Walking Dead, Homeland, and Banshee. Stewart is particularly proud of the work she did on American Gothic, a chilling cult horror series executive produced by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead).
“I was on Dawson’s Creek so I had some acting moments with some of that cast,” Stewart says. “That was kind of fun.” There were also several small but interesting character parts in a spate of made-for-television movies, she offers.
From Actress to Musician
Concurrent with her acting career, Stewart played in rock ‘n’ roll, Americana and punk bands. She was a member of Fetchin’ Bones, The Blind Dates and Volatile Baby, but her longest running musical project was as lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the band Doubting Thomas. Gambill was also a member of Doubting Thomas from the outset, playing violin and percussion and singing. The regional band, which was formed in 1988 and played its first gig in 1989, released five albums and two EPs.
REM’s Peter Buck guested on Doubting Thomas’ debut album Blue Angel. The follow-up, Two, included vocal contributions on one tune by Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls. In a 1998 interview with South Carolina newspaper The State, Stewart called the band’s third album “more soulful and Motown-influenced than anything else we’ve done so far.” Their discography also includes a compilation EP called Cut It Out and a live album.
After 15 years, the band wrapped, though Stewart says the members have attempted since to schedule a reunion show, the most recent attempt being a gig at the Neighborhood Theatre that was called on account of COVID-19.
In 2007, Stewart was sitting in her Plaza Midwood home, purchased soon after her college graduation when a Plaza Midwood address was far from desirable, looking for work and hitting a wall.
“There was nothing in Charlotte, not even bagging groceries,” she remembers. So, she went to New York to do an off-Broadway show called Good Old Girls. The show had a three-month run, then she came home.
The EastSide Local Idea Is Born
The economy was crashing, so with nowhere to go and nothing to do she went to Common Market to get a cup of coffee. She asked the market’s owner Blake Barnes if he was looking for help. It turns out he did, so Stewart stepped into the role of market manager. Gambill was working the juice bar at Common Market at the same time. She and Stewart constantly talked about opening a raw foods restaurant, but the plans never got off the ground. Instead, the partners turned to corporate jobs. Gambill went to work for the Blumenthal while Stewart went on to the Charlotte Symphony.
But the café dream refused to die, and salvation, or a kick in the butt, came through the guise of Penny Craver and Charlotte’s vital resource for film lovers, VisArt Video. Craver, then the owner of Plaza Midwood restaurant Dish, approached Stewart and Gambill and suggested it was time to pull the trigger on their juice bar. The three women launched EastSide Local, and to this day are still partners and owners of the café.
“We wanted a coffee shop, smoothie bar and juice bar, and we found this little place here, and I loved the fact that VisArt was close,” Stewart remembered.
The three women started construction for their café at the Eastway Crossing location. Then Stewart was approached by Charlotte attorney Mickey Aberman, whose firm had managed Doubting Thomas. He had also become the owner of VisArt, almost by accident.
A New Role at Neighboring VisArt
On New Year’s Eve 2010, Aberman had entered VisArt, then at its old location on East 7th Street in Elizabeth, to rent a movie. Seeing people pulling armloads of movies off the shelf, Aberman learned that the store was liquidating its stock prior to going permanently dark. Aberman got the store owner’s number, then ducked into the children’s video section to place a call. He halted the video fire sale and bought the store on the spot.
Now Aberman needed a manager at VisArt to replace the one that had left. Specifically, he wanted someone to open a screening room for local, art and cult films at the video store as the business transitioned to nonprofit status. Since EastSide Local was under construction, and not scheduled to open soon, Stewart accepted the position as VisArt’s new manager.
She got the screening room going and all was going well, she reports, until the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country. In the meantime, EastSide Local had opened prior to the pandemic, and the coffee shop owned by Stewart, Gambill and Carver was turning into a full-time restaurant.
“Brenda [Gambill] started creating a couple of things on the menu and people loved it,” Stewart says. “We decided we were going to do all-vegetarian.”
A Vegan Option If You’re Looking
Stewart considers herself primarily vegetarian, but not vegan because she loves cheese. She says she prefers good, organic food, and she loves animals. That said, Stewart’s not opposed to people eating meat.
“I think people are on the spectrum of where they are about all of their habits,” Stewart maintains. “I’m happy to create a good option for people who want to make some changes. If it’s one day a week that’s fine with me.”
What EastSide Local has taught Stewart is that people want healthier food that’s reasonably priced, she asserts. Whether people are vegan, vegetarian or otherwise, they want a break from meat at least a couple days a week, and they want it to taste good. Plus, people want a cool place to hang out and meet people (within reasonable pandemic protocols and precautions).
With EastSide Local’s menu, people would hardly miss the meat anyway. In addition to the aforementioned customer favorite, the Impossible Carolina Burger, the café serves a homemade Impossible Biscuit for breakfast that is completely vegan. Gambill modifies vegetarian Impossible meat into an Impossible sausage, and then adds vegan cheese along with some secret ingredients to create the café’s number one seller.
The Shamrock, a green smoothie containing pineapple, mango, spinach and banana, is also popular. In addition, EastSide Local has also created their own coffee blends. One is the EastSide Pride dark roast.
“Then we do Blue Star coffee which is named after a blue star that was over the water tower in Huntersville,” Stewart offers. “My sister and I talked for many years about making a coffee that celebrated that.”
A Flexible Business Model
And you can’t really have proper coffee without donuts, Stewart insists. The café is partnering with baker Kacie Smagacz and her Move That Dough Baking Company. Smagacz specializes in vegan donuts.
“She is doing all of her baked goods out of here, and she’s making [the café] her home,” Stewart says, which means that there are fresh doughnuts every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“On Sunday we really emphasize the coffee and donuts,” Stewart says.
Stewart gives kudos to Common Market’s Blake Barnes for inspiring her to follow a flexible business model. Barnes’ business model with Common Market has always been to serve the community by listening to what people wanted and then giving it to them, Stewart maintains.
“That’s where my thinking comes from,” she offers. “Open up, do what you want to do, and the community will tell you what it needs.”
Collaborating with the Neighbors
Stewart has also worked to create a synergy between EastSide Local and VisArt. People are starting to rent a movie from VisArt and then swinging by the café for some food.
“Pull up one time and we’ll bring it all out,” she says. “A one-stop shop.”
Stewart’s involvement in both businesses may have jump-started the cooperation between the two establishments, but now the collaboration has gained traction of its own accord.
“There’s a real spirit of working together,” Stewart maintains. Both businesses offer delivery and pick up, with EastSide Local delivering through Postmates, Door Dash and Chow Now. Tuesday through Saturday the café is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday’s operating hours are 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. VisArt is open every day 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Despite the pandemic, Stewart sees Eastway Crossing pulling together and becoming a community. She gives props to the shopping center landlord’s John Turner for fostering a sense of community and adventure.
“When we met with him he said he wanted to support small local businesses and he wanted to create a potentially cool spot,” Stewart says. “Even with COVID it’s starting to happen, awkwardly and stumblingly.”
A Community Grows in Eastway Shopping Center
She notes that the recently displaced Plaza Midwood Dairy Queen team is coming to the shopping center soon, along with an independent restaurant Royal African Cuisine. Those businesses will join Tommy’s Pub, Armada Skate Shop and essential oils shop Taj Essentials in the shopping center.
“There’s some really cool stuff here, and if it continues, it’s going to be great,” Stewart offers. “Plus, you can park here.”
As for EastSide Local, Stewart pledges to keep taking care of the fundamentals.
“What I want to do is give people a place of realness,” Stewart offers. “We’re selling a vibe more than we’re selling food. The food and the coffee are excellent, but it really is about people.”