Lydia Kindheart has always pushed the envelope.
She did her first fast at just 13 years of age and then another 10-day fast three years later. That, she says, was a revelation that opened her eyes to the connection between food and health and oriented her toward a lifelong mission of helping people feel good through nutrition.
At 32, Kindheart (who got her last name from a former partner) opened a small, raw food store in Fairfax that would eventually result in a thriving line of vegan and gluten-free crackers, breads and cereals loved by millions in the Bay Area and around the world.
Now the 48-year-old French-born self-described gypsy is pushing the envelope again, by opening a health food restaurant and community center in one of the most unexpected places in Petaluma: in a half empty business park on North McDowell Boulevard next to the 101 Casino.
Her reason for moving into this far flung space on the northern edge of town?
The state of the art kitchen, built by computer giant Cisco and which in its previous incarnation was the company’s cafeteria until it closed its Petaluma office about six years ago.
“It’s hard to find a large commercial kitchen,” said Kindheart, casting a loving gaze at the industrial size dishwasher, counters for salad prep and oven where workers churn out gluten-free pizzas.
What also attracted Kindheart to the location was its enormous size— 8,000 square feet—where the raw food entrepreneur has opened The Sunflower Center, where the cooks serve up an impressive variety of vegan items including curries, "super salads," buckwheat crepes, nori rolls, burritos, smoothies and desserts.
There is also a pillow strewn “chill space,” community meeting rooms, a children’s play area, library, garden and even an outdoor volleyball court.
“We live in a society where we are all separated from one another and it’s all about getting there first,” Kindheart says. “I believe we need each other and want to create an environment where people feel cared for, whether it’s through food, music, speakers, yoga or books. We’re offering this space as an open vessel and asking the community: What do you want to create here?”
Ever since her life-altering fast at 16, Kindheart has spent her life thinking about how food can heal ailments and restore the balance within a person’s body. She says she’s not surprised there is a growing interest in vegetarian, vegan and raw food diets because illnesses—cancer, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome and many other disorders— are becoming more endemic.
“We were meant to eat whole food, grains, vegetables, salads, but so many have gotten away from that,” she says. “Now people are realizing that it’s not about taking this magic pill that heals you; it’s an awareness of our whole lifestyle.”
Despite its out of the way location, the Sunflower Center has drawn a steady stream of customers, including workers from the surrounding offices and those seeking vegan or raw food options. On a recent day, a woman ate lunch while her two children played nearby and two coworkers came in for a meal, then lingered over some books on nutrition while hip, lounge-like music filtered through the sound system.
The center’s calendar, meanwhile, is teeming with yoga classes, massage workshops, movie screenings and other events meant to bring people together. There are meeting rooms available to community groups in the back, drop down movie screens (left over from Cisco) and a stage, meaning that the cafe is a lot more than just a place to get a healthy meal.
“We want people to not only come in and utilize the space, but also become involved with it,” says Cynthia Jones, an event coordinator at the Sunflower Center.
Kindheart's next project: ripping out the front lawn and planting a larger garden and, creating a hyper-local source of produce for her restaurant. She even fantasizes about buying land north of the building and turning it into a farm.
And to the people who wonder whether the cafe will ever open closer to downtown, the answer is a definite 'no.'
“Downtown doesn't have a lot of space and I don’t want to be constrained,” says Kindheart. “This center is a longtime dream of mine and the best decision I’ve ever made.”
The Sunflower Center is located at 1425 N. McDowell Blvd. and open 7:30am to 10pm Monday through Friday and 9am to 10pm Saturday and Sunday.