In an age of big industry healthcare, Mary Bernt stands out as a leader of the community grassroots movement. Born and raised in Rapid City, South Dakota, Mary can still recall the seed that grew her into a vegan restaurant owner. “My father was a physician by profession and a cowboy at heart, and we had a ranch where I learned to ride horses and cut cows. One cow in particular was very near and dear to my heart. I named him Moose. I’ll never forget the night we were eating dinner at the table and my dad asked me how I liked Moose. And I realized, fighting back tears, that the steak we were eating was him,” Mary says.
“I was fourteen and gave up red meat then and there.” Chicken and fish followed, and for the last 32 of her 60 years, Mary has only eaten plant-based food.
“Hippocrates said it best – ‘Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.’ So many of today’s chronic illnesses could be prevented or reversed with a whole-foods, plant-based regime,” Mary believes.
Mary has turned countless others on to the joy of eating what grows in the ground. Though she’s yet to convert her father, she credits him with how she approached her wellness-based work. “Watching – him, hearing him on the phone with his patients, gave me the desire to minister to people in a loving way – I feel he passed that on to me,” Mary says. “That’s a big part of being Irish.”
Mary, whose Irish ancestors are from County Kerry, and her husband, Tom, opened their first Veggies in the Black Hills in the early 1990s. It quickly became a favorite among the locals and summer tourists, including actor Woody Harrelson, who turned up twice in one day. “He said he loved that we’d created a vegan oasis in the midst of cattle country,” Mary recalls, adding,“His favorite thing was our plant-based ice cream – he couldn’t get enough of it.”
In 1998 Veggies was honored in America’s Best Restaurants (Magellan Press), and in 2005 the second Veggies opened in Ardmore, Oklahoma. “This was more of a challenge,” Mary admits. “Now we were deep in the heart of southern culture where plant-based food is something people fry or open out of a can.”
Around Ardmore (pop. 25,000), word spread fast of Mary’s hearty animal-free entrees, creative soups, pristine salad bar, and famous avocado chocolate pie; and Veggies became the go-to lunch spot even meat-eaters love. “Our cafe is frequently filled with cowboy hats and spurs.” Mary says. “These are the real food critics.”
The demand for her recipes resulted in two plant-based cookbooks – The Best of Veggies and I Love Veggies – and health and nutrition seminars held around the country, where Mary teaches the art of vegan cooking and food as natural medicine. The most recent seminar series, conducted at the restaurant over an eight week period, resulted in 14 Ardmorites losing a grand total of 300 pounds: lowering their cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure. “The best thing about my work is witnessing the joy people experience as they see their health and energy levels improve,” Mary says. “We don’t talk about diets at Veggies; we teach people about a total lifestyle change, and it just happens to be delicious.” ♦