Vegan Comfort food: Pulse Café in Hadley serves up plant-based burgers, pizza and mac and cheese

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 4, 2018, by Andy Castillo

Pulse Café in Hadley serves a burger that is a savory blend of mellow and earthy flavors, sandwiched between a fresh whole wheat bun, and topped with avocado, caramelized onions, heirloom tomatoes, aioli, tofu cheese, and lettuce. Combined, the flavors make for a tasty lunch, and mid-bite, it’s easy to forget the burger is made entirely from beans and grains.

“They have the best vegan burger in Amherst and Northampton,” said Jonathan Westphal of Northampton, who was at the café for lunch this week. “And I’m an expert. I’ve tried them everywhere.”

Pulse, which was opened in August by businessmen co-owners Keith Rehbein of Brunswick, Maine and Ted Crooker of Windsor, offers a small menu of what they call plant-based comfort food. Macaroni and cheese, calzones, grilled vegetable lasagna, soy-based chicken, wood-fired pizzas,  black bean grain burgers, and cheesecake are vegan dishes prepared by café cooks without animal products: no meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy.

”It’s beyond just a café,” said Evita Wilbur, general manager of the Route 9 eatery which also has an attached food market and caters events. “The vision behind this establishment is to promote wellness.”

“The food is uniformly good. It’s delicious,” said Stephanie Westphal, who was sitting at a table near the back wall of the spacious dining area with her husband. The cafe’s turmeric latte, she noted, is her favorite drink.

At a juice bar on the other side of the room, a barista was steaming almond milk for coffee on an espresso machine, and in the kitchen, a few of the cafe’s 32 employees were working the afternoon rush.

Pulse — derived from the Latin word for plant — serves globally inspired food that’s 100 percent vegan, with a focus on “comfort foods that most people miss when the switch to a plant-based diet,” says Wilbur.

Most of the café’s dishes are made with organic ingredients it buys from local farmers, including the Five College Farm at the former Montgomery Rose property. The North Hadley farm is under the same management as the restaurant, and grows heirloom tomatoes in greenhouses year-round.

Cooking vegan poses challenges, Wilbur says. Substituting plant-based ingredients to make foods like pizza or lasagna, which rely heavily on eggs, dairy, fish and meat, takes creativity. Instead, the cafe uses nuts, soy, and aquafaba, the brine in which chickpeas is cooked, to make a product similar in consistency to egg whites.

“We’ve come a long way with techniques and products … that are healthier, and don’t have any cholesterol,” Wilbur said. “Ten years ago people would have said ‘we could never eat this.’ But it’s vegan, and it’s a healthy alternative.”

In addition to the restaurant, Pulse has a small market where people can buy niche vegan food items, such as vegan cheeses, tofu egg replacement items and plant-based frozen foods. The café also runs a health program that hosts occasional wellness and cooking classes, and sells juice cleanses, a diet in which a person consumes only fruit and vegetable juices.

A faith-based mission

It’s all part of a broader health-based vision that inspired Rehbein and Crooker, who are practicing Seventh Day Adventists, to purchase the property in 2015 and open the cafe as a way to do good in the community by promoting healthy living. Those who follow that faith believe there’s a connection between the physical body and the spiritual realm. A holistic approach to health through vegetarianism and good nourishment is one way to honor that connection, Wilbur says.

“It’s a way of showcasing the practical aspect of what we believe. It’s how we can be a light in our community and impart what we know to others,” she said. “The intent was to be welcoming and inclusive. We needed to create a space, an environment and atmosphere to get that.”

Crooker, who says he met Rehbein at The Voice In The Wilderness Mission, a Christian health and lifestyle center in Savoy, noted that his sister runs Taste of Maine Restaurant in Woolwich, Maine, and a brother is involved with Estes Lobster House. Both Crooker and Rehbein have experience working in family businesses — asphalt for Crooker and construction for Rehbein.

‘A spiritual place’

On Monday, afternoon sunlight streamed through large windows that stretch up to a high ceiling while classical music was playing softly over speakers, audible above the quiet chatter and clinking dishes.

Even when it’s busy, Pulse Café feels peaceful and calm.

The restaurant, which was built in 2012 and more recently housed the former Seven Sisters Bistro, is set back from the road surrounded by farmland, beside the bike path, and not far from the bus stop at Lowe’s Home Improvement store next door. Previously, it was part of the Long Hollow Bison Farm — a far cry from its current evolution.

In between two airy dining rooms, there’s a more intimate seating area near a fireplace. The table tops and some interior design accents are made from Maine Heritage Timber, cut from recovered logs that were submerged in Millinocket Lake in the early 1900s. The logs were stored in the lake to preserve them.

“They were underwater for 110 years,” Crooker said, noting he and Rehbein selected the Maine Heritage Timber  because as a way to highlight nature. “It shows the beauty that God gave us.”

Seated at one of those tables, University of Massachusetts Amherst students Riley Despathy and Kelley Glennon, neither of whom are vegan, say they come to Pulse Café because they can always find a quiet spot to study near a wall outlet.

Part of that is because the cafe’s 9,230 square foot building is large enough to comfortably host more than 300 people at any given time, based on town property records. But it’s also because of the mentality of those behind the business.

“It’s a spiritual place,” Stephanie Westphal said.

Looking ahead, Wilbur says, she hopes to host two wellness classes per month at the cafe. Past sessions have included a class on diabetes and another on breast cancer.

“Cooking classes seem to be really popular. We hope to have two each month teaching how to cook this way,” she said. “The vision behind this establishment is to promote wellness, not just through food, but through education as well.”

Keeping with the Seventh Day Adventist faith tradition, which recognizes Saturday as the sabbath, Pulse Café is closed on Saturdays. During the week, it’s open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sunday, featuring a special brunch menu, from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. More information can be found at

Pulse VeganMac-and-Cheese with Shiitake Bacon

3 cups dry macaroni

1 can coconut milk

1¼ cups water

¼ cup yeast flakes

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup raw cashew pieces

¼ cup pimentos

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon onion powder

1. Cook macaroni in 5 quarts boiling water with 2 teaspoons salt until soft.

2. While the pasta is cooking, add remaining ingredients and blend until a smooth and creamy texture is achieved. Sauce should resemble melted cheese in thickness.

3. Drain cooked macaroni and return to the pot. Pour the blended mixture into hot, drained macaroni and cook together until thick.

4. Cover and let sit 5 to 10 minutes before serving, or put in an oiled casserole dish or cast iron skillet, cover with seasoned bread crumbs, and bake.

Serves 10 to 12