Downtown Express photos by Caroline Debevec
Larry Fleming, right, serving up vegan food in the basement of 120 Broadway.
Serving up vegan food in the land of red meat
By Kristina Puga
If there was one word to describe Larry Fleming, the 60-year-old owner of the Financial District vegan restaurant, Little Lad’s Basket Bakery & Cafe, it would be indefatigable. For the past two years, he has adhered to a rigorous schedule. On Sunday evenings, he packs his truck with homegrown food from his farm in Portland, Maine, and then drives over 300 miles to New York City, arriving Monday morning. Monday is spent working at Little Lad’s followed by a trip to the market to buy more produce for Lad’s and his restaurant in Maine of the same name. Tuesday is spent working at Lad’s in New York, followed by another overnight drive back to Maine. Wednesday he spends cooking with his wife and gets to see his five children who range in age from 2- to 11-years-old, before driving back to New York. He’s in the restaurant all day Thursday and gives his weekly $10 nutrition class in the evening. Friday is spent at Lad’s and then he drives all the way home once more, only to start the process all over again on Sunday evening.
The $3.99 all-you-can-eat buffet offered at Little Lad’s on 120 Broadway, brings a non-stop crowd of about 400 customers daily — which has only been increasing with the recession. Ranging from their late 20’s to early 60’s — some are dressed in suits, some in blue-collar gear. Most pile up their trays from the buffet, which includes items such as, spicy corn chowder, green salad, Jamaican-style black beans, flavored brown rice and potatoes au gratin. There is also an a-la-carte menu including veggie burgers with a side of herbal popcorn instead of fries, and nachos topped with a cheese sauce made from pureed carrots and potatoes. One can also try a healthy, caffeine-free version of coffee called Cafe Roma made from roasted barley.
During a typical busy lunchtime shift, Fleming wears a suit in order to remind his customers that he’s serious about his mission. He looks fresh, not worn out. In fact, his skin is wrinkle-free and almost glowing. His age is solely revealed by his shiny white hair. He stands in his usual spot behind the counter — which is adorned with items for sale such as, natural maple syrup, homemade almond butter and his ever popular herbal popcorn — where he mans the cash register. As each customer passes, he doesn’t forget to wish them a wonderful day, or ask them how their lunch was — and he can do so in multiple languages, including Hindi and Bengali.
He doesn’t go long without a smile emerging on his face, and he somehow finds the time to write songs for his five young children. Songs with lyrics like, “I loved that sugar so faithfully, but I found out sugar didn’t love me.”
Originally from eastern Washington, Fleming was ironically raised on a beef cattle ranch. He voluntarily adopted vegetarianism at age 18, after he became aware that not even the cattle ranchers bought grocery store meat due to the grocery store’s unhealthy standards. At 22, he became a Seventh-day Adventist — a Christian religion with a strong focus on eating healthy.
“I was a vegan before I was religious,” he says in his calm and soft-spoken manner. “Everything made sense when I stopped eating meat. I felt stronger. It was a process.”
Even though, he could never convince his parents and siblings to eschew animal products, he isn’t even close to giving up on the rest of us. Over the last 30 years, he has committed himself to spreading veganism around the world. From a small farm in New Jersey, he started training people to open vegan restaurants internationally. He’d help to find locations and get them started. “I’d stay with them till their restaurant was full and up and running,” he said. “We train people to be independent.”
He says there are restaurants still open today that he got going in Tennessee, Czech Republic, France, Korea, Japan, and Norway. A family is running the Maine Little Lad’s.
Fleming used to run two Country Life’s – one on 48 Trinity Place and the other in Midtown, as well as another vegan locale called Living Springs on E. 60th St. during the 1980’s and ‘90’s. These restaurants made a mark on many; so much so that the owner of 120 Broadway, World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein, who has an interest in healthy eating, offered Fleming significantly lowered rent in the basement space if he would come back to the area. This is only one of the reasons Little Lad’s has been able to exist in Manhattan for the past two years. He makes just enough for him and his family to survive humbly.
“My wife and I cook the food.” he says. “It’s not like we spend a pile of money for what we do.”
Many of his customers say they are grateful to him for their significant weight loss after even just a month of eating his food, and report increased alertness, and an overall feeling of well-being — all for the price of a Happy Meal.
Answering his cell phone on a Tuesday evening, with at least 10 hours of driving still ahead of him, Fleming remains as enthusiastic as he is when greeting customers. “My goal is to have a vegan option in every city,” he says. “I want to see the biggest carnivores and serve them. I want to see their cholesterol fall!”