By Mark Costigan
January 20, 2011
Holy Cow Foods stands between the likes of Subway and Panda Express:
a beacon of organic hope within the tried chemical methods of the
past. But behind every successful business is a riveting story.
The tale of Holy Cow began in Southeast Asia.
South African native and radio journalist Anton Ferriera was living
in Hong Kong. His wife and co-owner-to-be, Kathee Lavine, was a
socialist vegetarian headed to Japan to teach English to raise money
to go to China. Their paths met after Lavine's letter accidentally
fell into Anton's hands, and after a few homemade vegetarian meals,
the flowering couple set sail to live on a kibbutz in Israel.
Life in the socialist settlement was far from glamorous, but it
shaped their values for what was to come.
"I was all about education and people on the kibbutz," Lavine said.
"Creativity as a way of creating your life. At the kibbutz we got
really in touch with the land. You get this holistic appreciation for
the cycles and the soil. All of the holidays were part of the cycle
of life. They were all rooted in agriculture."
Ferriera was a vegetarian cook on the kibbutz, and achieved a sort of
micro chef-stardom within the community with his talents. While
Lavine was planning events and organizing people, Ferriera was making
vegetarian foods from scratch because they didn't exist. It was here
that the two started to discover their chemistry in food.
"Community is a value," Lavine said. "You build community through
food. The kibbutz gave us the tools to do this business. You always
need the 'what' and the 'how.' You need the person who makes the
creative part and the person who makes things happen. That is what
every business needs."
Almost coincidentally, their pastoral idealism bloomed as chemical
industrialism gripped the commune.
"When we saw the chemicals, it drove us to organic," Lavine said.
"They put two chickens in a cage. Fed them shit. The cows got
ground-up oranges and cottonseed. We became aware because we saw it
firsthand and we were doing it. We just said 'This is not right.'"
With a decreasing budget, a worsening food supply and the threat of
their two newborn children eventually serving in the Israeli army,
the couple set out for the United States. They made a list of what
they would settle for, and soon enough the four winds blew them to Eugene.
"I needed to be around freaks," Ferriera said. "You come to Sundance
and look at the bulletin board and say 'there are some interesting
people out here!'"
Ferriera didn't know how to write a check. Lavine knew that the vast
majority of restaurant owners go out of business in the first year.
"I said if we get the divorce now, we can get the bankruptcy later,"
joked Lavine on the couple's plans to go into food.
They bought a business called Floating World and grossed a mere $400
the first month. But within that first month of haggard business,
they learned about good natural food that tasted bad. They learned
about shelf space, the ups and downs of manufacturing, and running a
food business in a town that needed to eat.
"We learned the business and then did our own thing," Lavine said.
Such was the birth of Holy Cow Foods.
It started as a home-based food business, distributing to stores like
the then "closet-sized" Sundance Natural Foods. The breakthrough came
when they discovered "tofu-to-go."
"We knew we couldn't ever make enough money making sandwiches,"
Lavine said. "They only had a shelf life of one week. Tofu-to-go was
very important historically. We came up with something that doesn't
exist. It would eventually become the basis of our menu at the Oregon
It was here at the country fair that the couple changed directions.
"We didn't want to be a manufacturing company. We wanted to be with
the public and the community, actually face to face. When we did the
country fair, we realized how fun it was to serve people who you love."
Meanwhile, the Erb Memorial Union at the University had been recently
revamped. Students were bidding on a number of food options, and the
"healthy spot" was the most heavily contested of all four.
"We had this really big competition," Lavine said. "And the students
threw it to us because they knew the wraps."
It was here that Holy Cow Foods moved on to Duck soil, setting out to
serve local, vegetarian dishes with nearly 100 percent organic ingredients.
"We pay more for food than anyone else does," Lavine said. "We really
care about always fixing the quality. Anton improves the food all the
time. He is always restlessly improving everything."
After working directly with farmers to grow their ingredients,
supplying University students with healthy options for 14 years and
boosting support of natural foods in the Eugene community, Ferriera
and Lavine have decided to open a second location on Willamette Street.
"Food is such a political thing," Lavine said. "We pay a huge amount
of money to do what we do. The poisoners get subsidized and can do it
at will. Every time we eat we are making a huge vote for how the
world should be."
Make sure your vote counts.