Did you hear the one about the vegan cafe that moved next to a butcher shop?

Here's what happened when Hearts Choices Cafe Market set up shop next to one of the stalwarts of Cowtown's food scene.

Strange business pairing has made for some funny looks, photos and customers who now shop at both

Eahly Shirley, left, and Nan Thammanatr, centre, are the owners of Hearts Choices Cafe Market, a vegan restaurant next to Master Meats, which is owned by John Wildenborg, right. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

John Wildenborg had just settled into the new home for his decades-old shop, Master Meats.

He'd found a great location — an airy space with room for both his stock and keepsakes, which includes mementos from when he taught actors on the TV crime drama Fargo how to handle a cleaver.

Then the phone rang. It was Wildenborg's leasing agent with some news.

"He said, 'There's a restaurant that's looking at moving in beside you,'" recalled Wildenborg. "'It's a vegan restaurant. Would you have an issue with them?'"

Now, if life were anything like Fargo, this would be the inflection point in a troubled tale — the opening round of some Hatfield-and-McCoy-style strife. 

T-bone versus tofu, perhaps. Bacon versus facon.
The view from outside Hearts Choices Cafe Market and Master Meats, located near the corner of 41st Avenue and 6th Street N.E. in Calgary. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

But since Hearts Choices Cafe Market moved in next to Master Meats more than a year ago near the corner of 41st Avenue and 6th Street N.E., the relationship has produced more food than feud — even after the cafe's veggie truck accidentally backed into Wildenborg's car.

This seemingly strange pairing has resulted in plenty of double-takes, funny photos and even customers who actually shop at both places. This is still Cowtown, after all.

"It is quite funny," said Eahly Shirley, who co-owns Hearts Choices with his wife, Nan Thammanatr.

"Sometimes it will be a couple and you'll see them kind of split off and get their meat, and then afterwards, they'll come [here] for lunch, which is pretty cool."

Unlikely business situation blossoms into friendship

4 years ago
Duration 0:36
Did you hear the one about the vegan cafe that moved next to a butcher shop?

'You'll never make it'

Just a decade ago in Calgary, it might have seemed silly to suggest such a scene.

When Shirley and Thammanatr first moved to the city from Vancouver seven years ago, they saw few vegetarian options.
Nan Thammanatr working in the kitchen of the Hearts Choices Cafe Market. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

"We were walking around the Calgary Farmers' Market one day and we saw a little 10 x 10 booth empty," Shirley said. 

"We were like, 'Hey, we could maybe start a business here selling vegetarian products.' And so that's how we started, with a tiny little freezer and a tiny little booth making, like, $30 or $40 a day.

"People were telling us, 'Oh, you're going to be vegetarian in Calgary? You'll never make it.'"

But as time passed, interest grew. Their booths got bigger. They opened up their first restaurant, a Thai vegan cafe on Macleod Trail, and added a food truck.

Mr. Bacon vs. Monsieur Tofu

It was Hearts Choices' second Calgary location that opened next to Master Meats, which has been a food scene staple since 1976. Wildenborg's father-in-law, Mike Mortl, and a partner helped start the business, which became a wholesaler to some of the city's finest restaurants.

Wildenborg was brought on board not long after meeting his future wife. They both worked at Safeway, where she was a cashier and he was a produce manager, ironically.

"After marrying [Mortl's] daughter, it didn't take me too long to work my way to the top," joked Wildenborg, who bought the business in 1999.
A ceramic cutting chart inside Master Meats. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

As a way of easing the impact of Calgary's boom-and-bust cycles, Master Meats increased focus on their retail efforts, which is now the bulk of their business.

Wildenborg considers his staff to be genuine artisans, not meat cutters. Some have called his store the "hipster" butcher shop, which draws a chuckle.

"I'm very, very proud of what I do," he said.

Wildenborg also likes to have fun. One corner of the shop is dedicated to bacon in pop culture, including a bacon costume and a "Mr. Bacon vs. Monsieur Tofu" action figure set.

But there is no "versus" in the relationship between Master Meats and Hearts Choices. Indeed, they now consider themselves to be friends.
Some of the vegan cauliflower 'wings' sold at the Hearts Choices Market Cafe. The dish is a favourite of butcher John Wildenborg. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

Mutual respect

Thammanatr, who is committed to a vegan lifestyle, said their relationship with their neighbour has given her a broader perspective.

"Through staying here... I personally changed," she said. "I learned to accept the way things are, the way people want to be, and respect that."

The respect is mutual.

Wildenborg, who has a daughter who is vegetarian, can quickly list a half-dozen favourites off of his neighbours' menu, including cauliflower "wings" that he calls "amazing."

"But I feel bad I can't reciprocate," he said.

Visitors seem to like the pairing, too. Many take photos to post on social media. But the two busy businesses see the relationship as much more than a novelty. And, with 10-year leases, they expect it to continue to flourish.

"Like I've always said, if a butcher and a vegan cafe can get along, why can't the rest of the world?" Wildenborg said.