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Like most American summertime holidays, Memorial Day cuisine often consists of grilled meats and mayonnaise-infused salads. But this year, residents in Ocean City welcomed a new restaurant that doesn't serve hot dogs, hamburgers, or egg salad. Actually, it doesn't even have a grill.
Janet Phillips is the owner of My Nature, Ocean City's first raw-vegan restaurant and store. The venue opened this past Memorial Day in the Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel.
Phillips says her journey began about 13 years ago, when she started learning about foraging.
"I started doing wild edible and medicinal plant walks, and along the way I met a young man who said 'I only eat raw,' and I didn't really understand what that meant at the time, but I finally realized that this is the only way we should be eating," she says. "Everything else is killing us."
She'd already made the personal choice to eat vegan, but when Phillips started examining American health statistics and the impact that food production and consumption have on the planet, she decided to reach out and share her message with others. "Our eating habits are not just destroying us, but they're destroying people around the world that we don't even know," she says.
But it wasn't as simple as just ceasing to eat animal by-products. Phillips says options were so limited in restaurants, that she would usually bring sprouts or wild greens along with her to toss on whatever salad she ordered.
"At some point, I just thought it was so ridiculous to have to take these steps to eat good food," she says. "Every place in town who's serving food should be serving good food, not be serving stuff that's bad for us."
That realization flipped a switch for Phillips, and she decided to do something. That's how My Nature came into being.
But first she had to tell her relatives, and here's where it gets really interesting. Ironically enough, Phillips married in to one of the most famous names in seafood and buffets, the Phillips family. By the time she made the decision to start a store, she had already been a vegan for years.
"I had kind of been putting the bug in my brother-in-law's ear for several years now, giving him a little information here and there about how toxic our fish are and about how bad it is," Phillips says. When she broached the topic, she and her brother-in-law contemplated buying a local organic store.
But that came with its own set of problems. "There's a lot of organic junk food out there," she says. "People think if they eat wild caught fish, they're perfectly fine. Well, the ocean does not discriminate where the pollutants go. It's everywhere now."
She says there's a common misconception that "organic" automatically means "healthy," but that isn't the case. She estimates that 75 percent of products in most organic stores aren't even things that people should be eating.
"That's why I opened this place," she says, "to try to raise the bar to a level that people could understand that they could walk in here and know that every decision they make is gonna be a good one."
Since opening, My Nature has attracted a range of clientele. Phillips says she sees both veteran vegans and people just starting to make the switch, who are looking for a way to accommodate their newly adopted lifestyle.
She says most customers seek her out, after learning about the restaurant online or through word of mouth. "They're vegan already and they walk in the store and say 'thank God you're here.'"
But she says other people come in off the street, and aren't quite sure what they're walking in to. "They just walk in for a smoothie, and then they realize that there's this whole other thing going on here," she says. "We give them a little information and send them on their way, and I think for many of them it's that awakening moment... to realize what they've been missing."
When people complain about the challenge of changing to a vegan lifestyle, she says, "Well, my husband was a member of Phillips Seafood, so if he can do it, anything's possible."
She says even Brice Phillips, the founder of Phillips Seafood, started to accept the message that his daughter-in-law was trying to tell him. "He was so recognized for building up this big seafood empire, so to speak, but then he started reflecting and realizing that there were a lot of things they weren't paying attention to, environmental issues and health issues," Phillips says. "He was very concerned and would mention to me several times, 'I don't know what our young people are going to do.'"
Phillips told her family's aging patriarch not to worry, and that she'd fix it. "So I'm fixing it," she says with a laugh.
As the trend toward healthy living and clean eating continues to build, Phillips says more information is becoming available to consumers. "There's just so many ways that the message is getting out now that it never did before."
"Each and every one of us needs to start taking responsibility for what we eat," Phillips says. "It's that simple."
[Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "She Don't Use Jelly (Karaoke Version) (originally performed by Ben Folds Five)" by La-Le-Lu from Easy Listening, Vol. 2]