We talked to: Bela Vegetarian Restaurant
We recently had a lovely conversation with Lily and Carol of Bela Vegetarian Restaurant, one of the most beloved eateries in Northampton. Check out what they had to say during our interview!
Could you give us a brief history of Bela?
Lily: I was born in the Philippines, where my aunt owned a restaurant, and I grew up loving to help her and learn at her side in the kitchen. My mother also taught me many of her techniques and recipes as I was growing up. After I arrived here in the Pioneer Valley, I worked at various area restaurants, but realized I wasn't happy being told what to cook or how to cook it. I wanted to follow my own culinary passions and use the knowledge I had been taught by my aunt and mother. With the help and support of my partner Carol and our beloved friends, I decided to embark on the very challenging yet rewarding journey of opening my own restaurant. And then, on October 21, 1991, Bela Vegetarian was born, and we just celebrated our 30th birthday! Though I’m not a vegetarian, I became interested in and passionate about vegetarian cooking when Carol and I were first dating and found there were very limited options for vegetarians at restaurants. Going out to dinner to only find a side salad as an option was not ideal, and it inspired me to begin thinking more about how to imaginatively cook for both Carol and all of the vegetarians in the community and beyond.
Carol: It was exciting to see Lily start to envision her own restaurant, where she would be in charge of her own kitchen, and have the opportunity to explore her own recipes and style. At the time, restaurant kitchens were particularly male-centric and not very supportive or encouraging of female cooks or chefs who wanted to work their way up. I could tell how unhappy Lily was, and so between her desire to run her own place as well as offer exciting vegetarian fare, I, as well as many of our dear friends, encouraged her to realize her dream.
We went to the small business development center and put together a plan. At that time, Lily was working at The Fez our (current space) and was given the opportunity to purchase the business. It just felt like the right time to open Bela. After a wonderful career in teaching, Carol decided to help Bela by becoming the baker. Baking had always been a passion of hers, along with teaching. She’s been able to pursue a very creative baking career creating the vegan desserts she’s inspired to bake. Lily and Carol’s combined efforts, along with a devoted team and ever-evolving menus, have made Bela what it is 30 years later.
How are things going for the restaurant during these unpredictable times?
We are surviving one week at a time, and doing our best to continue to serve the community. During the pandemic, our landlord, Gary Schaefer, worked with us and the PPP Loan Program. This was crucial to our survival, and we are so grateful. Our Bela crew, some of whom have been with us for 20 plus years, are like family, and have helped us to continue to stay open and do what we all love. I think that when we hit March of 2020 and had to shut down till June, it was like we were all standing shoulder to shoulder, even though we were meeting in our yard and standing six feet apart. At that point, we discussed what we could do as a next step, which was when we decided to go to all takeout for the foreseeable future, and we’ve remained doing that as we’ve not felt comfortable having folks back in our cozy, intimate dining area. As much as we miss them, we just want to make sure that we keep the community and our team as safe as possible.
We also started offering gift certificates, and were met with such generosity from people—so many have purchased them and not even used them, but continue to order on a regular basis and have really rallied around us. In this crazy time, we are still committed to ensuring that our crew is cared for and earns a living wage, which means that people’s generosity with consistent takeout orders and generous tips is more important than ever. While we’d love to be able to serve people at the tables and create the ambience and artistry that is so beloved at Bela, we’re just not able to manage that quite yet. But because we are all working harder than ever, and Lily has been forced to take on even more roles in the pandemic, our team relies on tips even more. That’s why we’re thankful to the community for their generosity, thoughtfulness, and ongoing support.
What are some challenges you endured, and what are some positive things that you’ve learned/that have come out of the past (nearly) two years?
On a weekly basis, we have the challenge, but also the opportunity, to add more interesting and innovative dishes to our takeout menu. Right now, we’re working to come up with a salad that won’t get soggy and can be eaten either cold or heated up. On the baking side, the apple cake has caramel sauce with whipped cream, and we’ve always presented it on beautiful antique plates. But in this time of takeout, we’ve just had to put it in to-go containers and really can’t offer whipped cream, and the caramel sauce goes on the side. So the presentation of the food and the aesthetic aspect has had to change, but we feel like people have come to accept that in the past couple of years, and are still excited to order their favorites.
For us, the outdoor seating option ultimately wasn’t viable, as we have a very limited amount of space to comfortably and successfully accommodate diners. That said, we did encourage people to take their food to the park and enjoy it picnic-style. There are some things we’ve just had to let go of at this time, accept that lack of control, and keep moving forward with what we’re good at, which is cooking great vegetarian and vegan fare for an appreciative community.
As business owners, what do you do to unwind/relax/rejuvenate?
Lily takes a sauna in our backyard every night to unwind and feel rejuvenated. It really helps her get through the week and restores her body and mind! Normally, travel is huge for us, and we love visiting Lily’s sister, nieces, and nephews in the Philippines, though we’ve not been able to do so since 2018.
So for some manageable escapes, we’ve enjoyed camping in the Adirondacks and along the coast of Maine, as well as in state parks in Vermont. These trips are all within a four-hour drive, which gives us a few days to feel transported to a different world, but also return home within a day. We love connecting with nature and feeling recharged by the experience. We used to take a 2-week trip in the summer, which would include international travel, but right now we’re pretty limited with both the pandemic and finances. That said, we feel fortunate that we have so many lovely places to camp and hike not far from our home!
Is there anything you’re excited about regarding the business in upcoming months, from events to growth opportunities?
We will be adding more and more dishes to the takeout menu! Lily will recipe test new, vibrant recipes and incorporate what’s available seasonally. Carol will also continue to test out new desserts and offer her vegan delights. We look forward to the bounty available in this area as the seasons change, and what’s on offer inspires us to create new dishes. It keeps us and our crew inspired and engaged, not to mention, creatively fulfilled. We love the fact that we have the freedom to come up with something new and test it out to see what works and what people really enjoy. Even after 30 years, we remain passionate about our work, and we are so thrilled to have been a part of the Northampton community for such a long time.