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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Real Roots Cafe owners Tiffany and Matthew Lake present during the pitch night for the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union's Second Annual Idea Leap Grant Initiative at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center Oct. 22 in Chattanooga. TVFCU awarded five grants totaling $50,000.

Creating an entirely plant-based menu from scratch takes a lot of experimentation, says Matthew Lake, owner of Real Roots Cafe in Fort Oglethorpe. He and his wife, Tiffany, spend hours in the kitchen trying out different recipes to add to the menu.

In addition to hot meals, they make their own cheeses, sauces and desserts.

"Being plant-based, everything we do is innovation," Matthew Lake said. "We can't just pick up a normal cookbook and go from there. Everything is altered. Everything is changed."

They refuse to put anything on the menu that they wouldn't enjoy. "We focus on flavor and texture. We don't want people to have to sacrifice when they do plant-based," he said.

But experimentation and innovation come with a price. This led the Lakes to apply for the Idea Leap grant, a part of Chattanooga's Startup Week.

In October, after multiple interviews and a site visit, they were awarded $2,500 by Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union to purchase new equipment, grow their meal prep business through additional storage and expand their overall staffing.

Though they didn't get the full amount they were hoping for, which was around $12,000, they're still looking to create a larger staff to help with events, cooking classes and community outreach, Matthew Lake said.

Over the past two years, he and his wife have worked on curriculum to educate area students about the benefits of eating healthy. Their healthy-living seminars have taken them to Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, Red Bank Elementary School and Belvoir Christian Academy, to name a few.

"We teach them simple things about fruits and find ways to make it fun," said Tiffany Lake.

She has also created a YouTube channel to engage mothers in finding healthy alternative snacks. One of the featured recipes is vegan cookie dough bites, a favorite of their 2-year-old daughter, Cali.

The Lakes set up shop in the former The Local Juice off Battlefield Parkway two years ago. Almost immediately, they began experimenting with food and adding to their menu as well as growing their vegan meal prep service, which now sees 30-50 customers a week, they said.

"This is something we are so passionate about," said Tiffany Lake.

The innovation grant is the first step in expanding their brand. By the first of next year, they'll be opening a spot in downtown Chattanooga, where they currently live.

"I grew up in Signal, she grew up in Hixson. We're excited to expand more into the area," Matthew Lake said.

Email Sabrina Bodon at sbodon@timesfreepress.com.

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