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  • Tara Crutchfield

Too Cool for School: InnerG Café

There’s a bright yellow school bus on the side of the road on the way to Lake Alfred that’ll teach you a thing or two about good vegan food. Eimi El serves 100 percent plant-based comfort food with soy-free and gluten-free options from her converted school bus food truck.


El, from North Carolina, moved to Florida in 2000 and has lived in Davenport since 2018. “I wanted to be vegan 20 years ago when nobody was vegan,” she remembered. The only meat replacement she could find at the time was tofu, and she wasn’t interested in eating that, so she kept eating meat.


Years later, when she and her then-boyfriend watched the trending documentary “What the Health,” they decided to go vegan that night. The documentary touched on the health implications of the standard American diet and the way animals in factory farming are treated. The next day, the couple threw out all the non-vegan food and went grocery shopping to restock their pantry. El has been living a plant-based lifestyle ever since.



“I’ve always loved to cook—even before I went vegan,” she said. Friends encouraged her to start her own restaurant. They said people needed to taste her cooking. In 2022, she began selling food out of her house. She also created a children’s curriculum she planned to launch over the summer and worked as a lifestyle and wellness coach.


After returning from a month-long trip to Mexico, she started penning her second cookbook, “Food is a Love Language” which she self-published. Her previous cookbook was “35 Days, 35 Delicious Recipes for the Vegan Lifestyle.”


She also met with a realtor and began searching for restaurant spaces. However, all of them were too expensive and came unfurnished.


“I thought, let me get intentional about this year and my life and my goals. So, I started 369 Manifestation.” According to www.mindbodygreen.com, “The 369 method involves writing down what you’d like to manifest three times in the morning, six times during the day, and nine times in the evening.”


“The first entry that I wrote on January 17 was ‘InnerG Café food truck,’” she said. Three days later, her realtor emailed her about the school bus location. She didn’t see the email until two weeks later. Serendipitously, when El sent the realtor a text interested in seeing the bus, that’s precisely where the realtor was, showing another client.


On February 2, 2023, El left work to view the location. “When I walked in, I felt the same energy as when I bought my house. This is it. This is for me.”



PEDAL TO THE METAL

Seven days later, she got the keys and had her grand opening in March. The school bus was turnkey, pun intended. It was initially to be a Mexican food truck, but never opened. All the equipment was brand new. “God was like, ‘Okay, girl, you said you wanted it. So, here you go.’”


El stuck with a comfort food menu because that’s what she was used to cooking, and that’s what people sought – food like burgers and fries, mac and cheese, and nachos. “It’s been evolving, and I’ve been adding different things to the menu over time,” she said.


She finds the most joy in “the people, their reactions, and their enjoyment of the food. People don’t believe it’s vegan because of the items on the menu.”


Hungry patrons can find InnerG in her roadside school bus, or at events like the Aquarian Market, Tampa Bay Veg Fest, and Lakeland Veg Fest. She recently attended a career fair in Winter Haven, where she spoke with students about the culinary side of plant-based food. She also talked with administrators about introducing that information into the school system so children who want to further their education in that field can do so.


A+ FOR INNERG

Behind the bus, beyond a rod iron gate that has seen better days, a paver-lined path led us to an open-sky dining space with bus seat booths and wooden tables. A fountain gurgles in the background, and string lights hang overhead.


Our anticipation spilled over with the creek of a school bus door opening. El brought out diner-style red baskets filled with vegan comfort food.


All the dishes are El’s recipes and hold their weight. First, we tried a popular dish, the deluxe cheezeburger –a quarter pound walnut and white mushroom patty on a bun piled with mustard, ketchup, mayo, red onion, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheeze. Though a hamburger and vegan cheezeburger aren’t identical, the essence was there with its own unique tasty flavor. The walnuts and mushrooms give that same fatty ‘beef’ flavor with a hint of earthiness. I won’t name names, but there are restaurants with traditional burgers that I would skip in place of an InnerG burger.


The phish sandwich was another A+ dish. Air-fried heart of palm is seasoned with Seefood InnerG blend on a bun with homemade tartar sauce and lettuce. It was delicious and reminiscent of a certain fast food fish sandwich that rhymes with ShmcShmonalds. While we’re at it, that same chain comes to mind with the cheezeburger eggrolls, air-fried eggroll wrappers stuffed with walnut crumbles, diced onion, mozzarella and cheddar cheeze shreds, with a side of InnerG dipping sauce. It tastes just like a Shmig Shmack.


El recently started serving breakfast. She presented us with two air-fried breakfast rolls (gluten-free sausage crumble, ackee “egg,” roasted red potatoes with peppers and onion), a homemade waffle, a side of date syrup, and a sauce that tasted just like melted butter. Was it delicious? You butter believe it.


Other honor-roll dishes include potato salad and Haitian mac-n-cheeze with elbow noodles, shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeze, epis, and mixed pepper sauce blended in a homemade cashew cheeze sauce. I kept coming back to the potato salad. The potatoes were prepared perfectly—cooked through but still firm enough not to turn to mush. You could taste onion, bell pepper, and dill in each bite.


We washed it down with InnerG tea, made with spring water, pineapple, grated ginger, maple syrup, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and refreshing blueberry lemonade.


“Two of the biggest misconceptions [about vegan food] are that it’s expensive and that it’s not good,” El said. “I want to change that narrative.” The InnerG founder noted that the cost is minimal if one doesn’t shop for processed foods. “It’s not an expensive lifestyle to live. It does take a lot of time, but it’s worth it.”


InnerG Cafe 3500 Lake Alfred Rd, Winter Haven

(Look for the school bus across from A.O. Construction)

(689) 253-7315

FB: InnerG Cafe

IG @innergcafe innergcafe.com


Photography by Amy Sexson

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