Earlier this summer, we road-tripped up to Portland, Oregon - the so-called epicenter of liberal hipster USA and real-life set of television satire Portlandia. If you have never been to Portland or watched Portlandia, just be assured that whatever you’ve heard – it’s probably true and it is awesome! Now granted we were on vacation, it was summer and we were there for only 3 days, but still, I was ready to move there in a heartbeat. I just flat-out loved it and I was telling everybody, who wanted to hear and those who didn’t, about the lush green parks, the progressive vibe, the mellow, warmhearted people, the free rooftop movie screening, the food scene, the Kinfolk office, the most heavenly, organic, gluten-free, vegan, raw Lil’ puddin’ and the encounter with my very first automated kale massager. (Yes, there is such a thing!)
Now, looking at the list of things, that excited me most about Portland, it might not be so obvious to you, but it is strikingly obvious to me: More than half of it is literally fueled by Theresa and Willow – the two magical human beings, behind Pixie Retreat Raw'r Laboratorie & Makery.
Pixie Retreat is an organic, raw and vegan plant-based business. Their specialty is healthy savory and sweet treats, which emulate familiar food and taste experiences. That means the only difference you notice between, for example their ‘puddin’ and a regular pudding, is that the Pixie puddin' tastes way better and comes with a side of wholesome satisfaction, knowing you are enjoying something unconditionally healthy and sustainable. You don’t have to take my word for it, but just about everybody else who has ever tried their healthy grubbin' will tell you the same thing. The only downside is, that you have to be in or around Portland to enjoy it, because the Pixies believe in local.
There are a lot of things, you need to throw into the mix to make food that is as memorably tasty and that forever alters your tastebuds scale of yummy, but two of the main ingredients, are for sure the Pixies themselves with their kindred spirits, their devotion to what they do and to each other and the rich layers of their past experiences. Between the two of them, there is hardly anything they haven’t done and hardly a place they haven’t traveled.
When Theresa and Willow speak about their past, it quickly becomes clear to me, that I can only capture snapshots of their turbulent lives and will never fully do them justice, but I'm going to try.
Theresa grew up with 12 siblings in Richmond, Virginia. Her parents both worked in medical professions and she, too, developed a strong interest in all things health early on. It was easy to fall in line with family tradition and aim to become a doctor or something along those lines. Back then she simply dismissed her fantasy of making music and entering the entertainment industry, as nothing more than that - a dream. "I didn't speak much of my other desires, although they revealed themselves in my style of dance, clothing, and tastes in music. I had the rhythm and the flow down." Being a natural in the kitchen, she also tremendously enjoyed the creative freedom she had, cooking for her brothers and sisters, but a career in the culinary world, was unthinkable. Besides she thought it would kill her desire to make food.
After high school she moved to London to study Global Health and Wellness and from there the events started to take their course. Through a chance encounter with, who was to become her manager, mentor and best friend she signed to Warner Bros as a recording Hip Hop artist and her childhood dream very sudden and unexpectedly became a reality. "Next thing you know, I was recording with notable names in the music industry. It was a magical freeing time." When her manager lost his battle against cancer, after years of fighting it, Theresa was devastated and suffered through - what she describes as - a 'spiritual awakening'. She felt discouraged, wandered and lived in many places, before she left the music business and the 'security' of her past life behind and took a one way flight to San Francisco to find a new beginning in the city of rainbows - where she met Willow.
While Theresa went through a little bit of a nomadic streak later in life, Willow grew up a nomad. By the time she was 6 years old her family moved every year and a half, which added up to 11 schools between kindergarten and senior year and 2 city colleges, 2 universities and 2 trade schools after that. When asked, what she wanted to be when she'd grow up, there were two things she would always say: Black and a princess. "My best friend Keith was black, and coolest kid I knew. The princess part? Who knows, what I was thinking, probably some stupid gender specific roles in early movies and books showing this as a way for females to attain, to grow, to learn to be, to get to make some choices." When she was in her late teens, she developed a keen interest in fashion and a deep love for vintage clothing, so it only seemed natural for her to learn how to design, make and manufacture women's clothing and accessories. She embarked on a journey that led her from working in various resale businesses all through high school and college to opening her own vintage boutique Ver Unica and designing her own line of baby doll dresses. The store soon became a benchmark for high end consignment and attracted collectors, stylists and fashionistas alike. Ver Unica still exists in San Francisco's trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood, though Willow sold her part in 2009, to focus all her energy on their new venture.
When Theresa and Willow started Pixie Retreat in 2008, there wasn't much around in terms of clean, healthy and yummy food. Their business idea was born out of a pure necessity, after they realized that their desire of eating a more raw plant-based whole organic diet, proved to simply be too costly and not compatible with a full-time job of doing anything else other than just making the food and sourcing the ingredients - it was that labor intensive and it still is today.
A day in the Pixie kitchen starts at about 4am, the most surreal of hours, each day, every day, 7 days a week. They are constantly making, prepping, producing, delivering, dealing with staff and customers. "Fortunately, the inspiration and the motivation to deliver wholesome premium products remains high. We feel like merely an instrument, where we're getting this constant download of flavor sensibilities and ideas." Everything is made in-house from scratch, thats why an invention like the above mentioned kale massager is a blessing for them, that helps reduce labor intensive processes, while not compromising on quality or flavor. Those two are sacred - quality and flavor - and will always be first priority, especially now that they are piloting their first take-out concept out of their production kitchen, that eventually will evolve into a fast food style chain of intimate locations, where you can get your satisfyingly healthy food fix. Also in the works is a book. "Something simple, where we give it all up in print, to empower others to make their own interpretations of this basically simple food - it's a lifestyle, not a diet."
Just like the Pixies. They are conscious living pioneers, not evangelists.
What would you say were the biggest obstacles and challenges you've had to overcome on your way?
Willow: Ideas about what success is, what it means to me, the totally imbalanced system in which we have to try to affect change, what our society values and what it does not, who it values and whom it does not. These have been the big obstacles and wake up calls.
Theresa: We started from less than zero. We were committed to doing our own thing, and working for ourselves. We knew that we wanted to eat this way, but didn't have the money to buy all of the organic goods. We both had left behind, what we thought were going to be our lives course. We were selling vintage 'looks' online at the time, shipping around the globe - although both of us wanted to do something more powerful and less materialistic. We did a ton of yoga, and dove deep into spirit to uncover what was next. We have had many sacrifices these last seven years. Once we moved into our first shared vegan commercial kitchen, we lost the house we were living in, sold a lot of our stuff, put the rest in storage, and moved into a friends house - in a room. Everything about building Pixie Retreat has been humbling, we've not cut any corners, we've done everything on a shoe string budget with little bits of help here and there.
We've shifted and changed and tried to get out of our own way to allow for this beast to come forth. We've cried, laughed, worked through the nights, worked 100 hour weeks. We've been doubted, talked about, what has felt like hated on...and we've also been loved on, supported, buoyed by those who care for us, and who buy our goods in the stores. It's very emotional because Pixie Retreat is like a growing child by now. We give her every bit of what we have. It's been an expensive proposition, with our extremely high cost of organic goods, and high labor costs, as we make every element.
It's just a matter of showing up every damn day, regardless of how we feel, of how much sleep we've had, putting on that face and strapping on the boots and getting to work. Thankfully, we find joy and believe fully in our work and look forward to seeing how the food scene will evolve in years to come.
What helped/helps you overcome them?
Willow: Yoga … meditation … yoga … meditation … some bitch sessions with the bff's and love, deep love and old friendships and 'the food' of course.
What do you consider most important in your life? What makes you happy?
Theresa: Love … nurturing the important relationships in my life … furthering my yoga practice … having truthful real loyal friendships … being authentic … living the life I feel I'm meant to live, and not buckling under pressure … waking up in the arms of my love … cozy cuddles … kisses … sharing meals together … honest conversations … walks … my mom … rain … the ocean … waking up every day with purpose.