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Sanctuary Bistro Quietly Carries Out Vegan Mission in South Charlotte

A Q&A with owner Jennifer Jones Horton

Tiramisu at Sanctuary Bistro
Tiramisu at Sanctuary Bistro, a vegan restaurant in south Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Bistro)

We don’t deserve Sanctuary Bistro. 

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I finally made it to this unassuming, fine-dining vegan restaurant tucked into the Piper Glen area of south Charlotte. Since I found myself in the neighborhood on a day when they’re open for lunch (they’re closed Sunday through Tuesday), I decided to stop by. 

Firstly, I never imagined it to be as beautiful as it was — strip malls can be deceiving — but the food is what truly took me by surprise. I ordered a macadamia miso salad with crispy tofu on my first visit. In a world of cashew and almond everything, macadamia tasted like manna. Though I couldn’t have imagined it could get better, it did. 

I returned on another night for dinner and found the charcuterie board to be magic. The oyster mushrooms and the lion’s mane “steak” were the best I’ve ever had. Honestly, I was blown away.

My first time in, I heard a patron wish Chef Barry Horton a “Happy Birthday,” and thought “Wow, he’s working on his birthday?” 

For her part, owner Jennifer Jones Horton was taking care of everyone in the restaurant as the only server that day. Sanctuary Bistro is the epitome of family vision and dedication in the restaurant industry. 

I had to chat with the folx behind Sanctuary Bistro, so I reached out to Jennifer Jones Horton to learn how this brilliant vegan restaurant came to be in Charlotte, among many other things.

Sanctuary Bistro owner Jennifer Jones Horton
Jennifer Jones Horton, owner of south Charlotte vegan restaurant Sanctuary Bistro. (Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Bistro)

Jasiatic: Tell me about yourself and the rest of the team behind Sanctuary Bistro? 

Jennifer Jones Horton: We are a little woman-owned business. I am the owner, speaker, writer, front-of-the-house manager, marketer, server, you name it. If it doesn’t involve cooking, I have my hands in it. I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and have lived in Atlanta, California and now North Carolina. 

The passion behind Sanctuary Bistro began when I was 13. I became concerned about the cruelty and pollution of factory farming when a friend shared a PETA flyer with me. From there, I started buying veggie burgers. For my traditional meat-and-potatoes family, this was considered different and rebellious. As I continued learning, I slowly stopped eating chicken, eggs and eventually seafood, out of compassion. 

It was hard not to change once I knew about the cruel treatment that is inflicted on animals. I feel that if people would open their minds to understanding it, they would not choose to hurt something. I have concerns about the effect the meat and dairy industry have on the planet, and so Sanctuary Bistro is our solution for making change.

Executive Chef Barry Horton, my hubby, is amazing in his culinary skills. We are a team at work and in life. He has been the executive chef at the famous Ravens Restaurant in Mendocino, California. He has been on television with The View from the Bay and has had many published articles in Edible. He was also nominated by VegNews three years in a row for best vegan restaurant. 

He always lent a helpful hand in the kitchen growing up. In high school, Barry enrolled in a one-semester cooking class, unaware this would eventually be his life’s path. 

In 2000, Barry began attending culinary courses at Johnson County Community College when he realized, “This is what I love to do.” 

Chef Barry Horton stands in front of Sanctuary Bistory
Chef Barry Horton stands outside Sanctuary Bistro, a vegan restaurant in south Charlotte. (Photo Courtesy of Sanctuary Bistro)

By 2002, taking things more seriously, Barry decided to take his skills to a French culinary program. After perusing his options, Barry chose the Le Cordon Bleu program at the Western Culinary Institute, in which he graduated at the top of his class. 

His desire to continue his education learning about an organic, sustainable, vegetarian lifestyle led to his internship at the Ravens Restaurant of the Stanford Inn in Mendocino, where he quickly worked his way up to co-chef in 2005 and head chef in 2006 until October of 2009. During this time, he has learned that a chemical-free, locally grown, plant-based diet is optimal for a long, sound, healthy life, as well as, and most importantly, a compassionate life.

We also are raising our two children vegan: Jayden and Adeline. They have been raised in the restaurant business since they were 1-and-a-half and 4. Now, we want to do for the community what we’ve been doing for our family. The world is an imperfect place. Many of us feel the weight of responsibility but we can’t fix everything. So we do our small part whenever we can and hope that each small choice creates a ripple and together we can make true change with you. 

We have co-created a cookbook: Sanctuary Bistro’s Recipes for Everyday Living: An Easy and Loving Approach to Gluten-Free Veganism. Chef Barry has been creating delectable dishes for any and every palette. He was told once by a culinary instructor, “Never trust a skinny chef,” but this has proven to be false. Barry feels the instructor should have told him to always trust a healthful, conscientious and meaningful chef. A vegan diet is the key to mental, emotional and physical healing. His passion for his food and health is thus transferred to family and friends.

You mentioned that you’ve owned other restaurants. What did you learn during the process?

We opened our first successful restaurant in Berkeley, California, and with great sadness closed that after five-and-a-half years so that we could move closer to family. We opened our Charlotte restaurant in March of 2020. 

When you support a local small business you are directly supporting that family behind the business and their employees. The money stays local as the workforce is local and all of their activities — yoga, ballet, soccer — are all local as well. Let’s make sure we are supporting the small businesses of Charlotte as they keep the fabric of this community vibrant.

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Are there any personal philosophies that are important at Sanctuary Bistro? 

We lead our restaurant’s mission with compassion, which is why we are vegan. Our family has been vegan for 15 years this December. [We express] compassion through our food choices and more. Vegan for the mind, body, spirit, animals and the Earth. We also choose all organic because we vote with our dollars. 

In California, before our first restaurant, Barry was a private chef and I was a special education teacher. While I worked in many different aspects in the field of education, I was the most touched, moved and inspired by my time working with children in alternative schools. 

The students were assigned to be there by the court system, through suspensions or from juvenile hall. The stories from the students about how they had been treated and how we as a society don’t see education as holistic is infuriating. Children who don’t have access to their basic needs are not going to be able to learn. We have an extremely broken education system that struggles to support students who are outside the “normalized” box. 

We brought our skills into the school and had culinary classes, internships and won a grant for their school as they created nine out of their 10 lunches as vegan every two weeks. Later we decided the education system is really broken and decided that we wanted to be a part of change and that, by opening a restaurant, we could support local nonprofits that are creating change for the better. 

We can support animal rights, social justice issues and more. If any nonprofits in Charlotte read this, they can send their nonprofit information to us at chefbarry@sanctuarybistro.com with their mission statement and link to their 501(c)3 to be considered for a weekly Wednesday night benefit dinner, where 15% of the sales of the evening are donated to a nonprofit. 

Lastly, we want to lead with love and compassion to our human comrades of the world. A little kindness in this world can go a long way and I hope that people feel that when they step foot into our restaurant. 

Broccoli and “bacon” soufflé
Broccoli and “bacon” soufflé (Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Bistro)

What was it like to open a vegan restaurant in Charlotte during a pandemic? 

We opened in Charlotte five weeks prior to the pandemic. That honestly was the hardest time of our life. It was really stressful. It is hard for businesses with such low margins to make it through tough situations like this. It is still stressful as we try to dig out of the hole and get out of debt. 

However, the community really did lift us up. That felt amazing and every time we felt like we were drowning a small kindness would reinspire us. People don’t realize how impactful those moments were. All I can say is thank you to Charlotte for loving on us in times of need. We really felt it. People can continue to help small businesses by making sure they support them. They still need your help. We aren’t out of the trouble yet. So even though seats are getting filled it is going to take a long time to get into a healthy space for a lot of the little businesses. 

How can we best support you and other small, family-owned restaurants? 

Share their events, support your favorite restaurants and spread kindness. The biggest thing you can do at restaurants is love on them a little; they have been operating very short-staffed for so long and trying to be the best that they can. Remember, it can’t be like it was pre-pandemic. It might take a little longer to get your food or drink, but I promise if you are kind, you will feel the love from our servers. 

What have you learned throughout the process of owning multiple restaurants on opposite ends of the country?

We had a restaurant in Berkeley but closed it to be closer to family. We learned that family is the most important thing. We will always prioritize family so we will be closed on the holidays so we can be with family. Remember to reach out to your family whether by birth or created because life has so much more joy when you have folks in your life to enjoy the moments with. Keep them close and in this crazy world of no time, and work, work, work, remember without love and kindness, there isn’t much to shine for. 

Although Sanctuary Bistro has closed their Thanksgiving orders, look out for their Christmas menu this year. Also keep in mind that they have frozen meals you can order. And make a reservation for lunch or dinner now, then thank me later! There are so many ways to support their space. Let’s make sure Sanctuary Bistro is here to stay.


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