Cal Thrash grew up the son of two doctors. His mother, Dr. Agatha Thrash, was chief pathologist at St. Francis Hospital. His father, the late Dr. Calvin Thrash, was an internist in private practice.
In the 1970s, the couple became dissatisfied with the limitations of conventional medicine and began studying natural health and its connection to Biblical principles. Consequently, they launched two entrepreneurial endeavors. The first was Country Life Natural Food Store and Vegetarian Restaurant, now located at 1217 Eberhart Ave. The second was Uchee Pines, a natural health institute and lifestyle center in rural Seale, Ala.
As a young adult, Thrash abandoned his parents' natural health lifestyle and traveled west with the hopes of "making it big" as a disc jockey or businessman. But after falling on hard times, he came back home. Now he oversees the institute and the restaurant and is trying to usher them into the 21st Century.
The restaurant, which will celebrate its 45th anniversary next year, is the only eatery in town that's 100 percent vegan. It also has a store that sells natural products like dried fruits, whole grains, vegetarian meat substitutes and herbal supplements. Proceeds from the store are used to support the health institute, which is considered a ministry.
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Thrash talked to the Ledger-Enquirer about life at the restaurant and the latest trends in natural health and vegetarian cuisine. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
What has it been like picking up where your parents left off?
Certainly it's been a challenge in many ways, but a pleasant one. I did have the benefit of working with my parents for some years. I was voted president in 1999, and Dad past away in 2002. So there were several years that he was able to provide some direction and guidance.
With meat being such a Southern tradition, how has the restaurant been able to survive in a city like Columbus?
We have always seen the message of a healthy lifestyle as part of our personal mission and so whether we financially made a lot or didn't was really irrelevant in that sense. From that standpoint, there were some years when the people who ate with us every day were friends of ours and people also interested in healthy living, and that has just grown and expanded. Over the years the vast majority of individuals that we have been able to influence have been just by word of mouth, people talking about what we've been doing. They come by, enjoy the food and they tell somebody else.
Is the natural food store/restaurant a ministry or a business?
Certainly it has a business aspect to it. The funds all go to the supporting of the charity. But we've always had in mind the mission aspect of it. We see the health of an individual as corresponding to their happiness and even their spiritual wellbeing. So as Christians, part of our mission of helping people to experience salvation is also about helping them live a more abundant physical life in this world. So if people have less pain and less diseases, and also they have the benefit of salvation eternally, we believe that person is a happier individual and is able to serve God better.
What type of customers does the business attract?
Mostly business people because we're located in the business district, but our community is quite diverse because of Fort Benning and the various national and international businesses located here in Columbus. Then we have people that are just generally interested in health. They've moved here from another community and they're looking for a good place to eat. About a third of our customers are people who want to be vegetarians full time and the rest are just looking for low-cost and low-fat healthy alternatives.
Sometimes people are looking for a lunch that's high in antioxidants or maybe they're thinking in terms of a cancer-prevention type of diet. Sometimes even getting in one or two meals that are focused on a largely plant-based type of diet will make a big difference in a person's weight and how they feel every day.
Are there any items on the menu that people seem to really like?
You're asking somebody that would like to recommend the whole menu. But my personal favorites are the mock chicken quesadillas. And the second one that I like, personally, is the Persian dill casserole, which is made from rice and lima beans with kind of a cream sauce. They always know to give me a little extra on those days.
How can people find out what's on the menu from day to day?
If you go to the Facebook page for Country Life, it will have today's menu, tomorrow's menu. We've also posted the whole month's menu, and it will tell you when those items are coming up.
You also have the natural food store at the restaurant. What are some of the top-selling items there?
Some of the things that probably sell better at Country Life than the average health food store are granolas. We have several bulk granolas so you can dish out however much or little you need. We also have a whole section of various types of whole grains, flours, nuts, dried fruits and so forth. That whole section is very popular here. The prices are obviously lower when you dish out what you like as opposed to getting it pre-packaged. And, of course, the other aspect that's a hit in our store are the bulk herbs that we have. We have a whole section where people can dish out the flavoring type herbs like Oregano, or the medicinal type, like chamomile, for instance. Many times people will be surprised at how little those cost when you're bagging them up yourself.
What are the current trends in vegetarian cuisine and natural foods?
Right now, from what I understand, there are several items that have come out just in the past several months, with qualities that we would only think of in the domain of animal products. Cheeses made from pea protein that melt and stretch, for example. They are totally vegan but can be put on pizza. Another direction I've seen in the past year or so, is that many people are concerned about modified foods and GMOs. We try to mark our products with the necessary information so people know we're trying to provide the best nutrition that we can find.
It seems the taste of vegetarian foods has improved over the years. What have manufacturers been doing to make it more palatable?
Most of the manufacturing of health foods came about in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, so flavoring and tastes were very different. Today manufacturers are still using some of the same things, but they've improved the processing of those ingredients, and a lot of it has come about through experimentation. They have improved the texture, the taste, and in some cases, the look of the food. We would like to see people move toward more whole foods rather than extracts. The sooner they move in that direction, we believe the healthier they'll be. But even manufactured protein foods are better than animal products.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a business?
One thing that has really changed over the past 44 years is the level of understanding the average person has about the importance of nutrition in his or her own life. So we want to be able to present information in a way that's not confusing. People are exposed to so much conflicting research. One study says coffee is good for you, another says it's not. So who's right? The Internet is in everybody's lives today and we haven't really used the Internet to its fullest. We want to use it to share reliable health knowledge in a concise way, and that's something we plan to do in the future.
These days there are chain natural food stores like Whole Foods Market. Do you worry that one might move into the area and give you some competition?
Those of us in the natural health community would look at it as "the more the merrier." We've been trying to share our message of good health for so many years. So to see that level of interest in the community would be encouraging. I don't really think a Whole Foods would decrease our business. I think it would increase awareness even more about the importance of being careful about nutritional intake, and that would help us.
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