By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jan 17, 2005 at 5:38 AM

{image1}The Co-op Café, part of the Riverwest Co-op, opened quietly this fall. Since then, word of mouth created so much success that the small vegetarian and vegan eatery at 733 E. Clarke St. is expanding its menu, its hours and possibly its dining space.

"It's really picking up," says Heidi Stein, the café kitchen manager and one of five paid employees.

The most popular menu items are the hearty barbecue tofu sandwich, the garden and trees sandwich and soups -- ranging from chili to gluten noodle to spicy black bean. Stein says the tempeh Rueben, chicken-fried tofu and seitan ("vegetarian white meat") Philly are brand new to the menu, but already in demand.

This past weekend, the café started serving vegetarian and vegan brunch, featuring French toast, tofu or eggs and toast, vegetarian biscuits and gravy, and vegan pancakes with blueberries, bananas or coconut.

"We try to get as much of our food from smaller, local businesses and use as much organic ingredients as possible," says Stein, 26. "We're pretty proud of that."

The café and the co-op purchase most of their stock from Wisconsin Organics, Simple Soyman, Homegrown Wisconsin, Anodyne Coffee and local bakeries.

Although the co-op, especially now with its attached café, reminds some of Beans & Barley or Outpost in its early days, massive expansion is not the Riverwest Co-op's mission.

"Our goal is simply to increase our membership so we can continue to lower prices, stay in Riverwest and -- once we start making money -- provide classes for the community and support other projects," says Shelly McClone, store manager.

So is there competition or camaraderie between the local natural food stores?

"I would say we're friendly," says Stein. "They (Outpost, Beans & Barley) don't compensate us in any way, but we're not competitors either. We're all doing something a little different. Like, some of our shoppers go to Outpost to buy meat, or a person might come here for lunch and then have dinner at Beans."

This summer, the café will have an outdoor patio. In the meantime, if business continues to exceed the 12-seat dining area, they may use some of the co-op space for tables.

Prices at the Co-op Café are similar to others in the neighborhood. A sandwich, always on a fresh baguette and loaded with ingredients, runs between $5 and $6. Soup is $2.50 for a cup and $3.50 for a bowl and the brunches range between $4 and $7.

The vegetarian tamales and spring roll, both $2.50, are worth mentioning. The peanut dipping sauce that comes with the spring roll is incredible.

Stein, a self-taught chef who worked in a variety of restaurants and food co-ops including Outpost, says she picked up a lot of culinary tricks from her mother and has concocted in the kitchen for most of her life.

"One day, it finally clicked and I thought, 'I'm a good cook. I have this down,'" she says.

The Co-op Café is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call (414) 264-7933 for more information.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.