Downtown Athens’s new entirely vegan restaurant fills you to the brim with peace the moment you stroll through the teal wrought-iron gate with its name, “Echo,” woven in. Officially open since Sept. 3, founders Vanessa and Juan Molina bought Echo hoping it could harbor an array of simple gems and healthy menu items that delight visitors, like their all-vegan bar. The downtown nook’s eclectic, chalkboards-and-Mason-jars style is a combination of Molina’s ideas, her friends’ art pieces, hand-me-downs from previous tenant Farm 255 and wood and iron relics from the building’s past as a cracker-machine factory.
Vanessa Molina, white-blonde and bespectacled, grew up on a farm in southern Georgia. She wasn’t a big fan of meat because of her beloved pigs, cows and horses, but her mother’s cooking taught her to crave vegetables from a young age. “I know Southern food in and out; everyone in my family is from Georgia,” she says.
Molina nods frequently as she speaks, and her voice is like that of a kind college professor who’s had extensive experience explaining her subject. She keeps packets on hand about the benefits of eating vegan. “I think it’s fun to try to make Southern food out of a vegetable or a bean or grains,” she says.
Molina and her staff’s pride about the menu radiate throughout the large room. Paddy, the host, raves about the vegan barbecue plate — made with jackfruit instead of pork, I could hardly tell it wasn’t meat. Plus, ordering a dish made with an up-to-60-pound fruit is a novelty. “It’s the biggest fruit in the world,” Paddy says, gesturing so enthusiastically that his brown curls vibrate. Also on the menu: a many-ingredient burrito, a chickpea and sweet potato burger, hand-cut Belgian fries and a pomegranate margarita.
Fran Sommerville, a white-haired Southern belle from Marietta, Ga. frequented the Molinas’ former restaurant with her husband and followed them to their new location. “We were [Vanessa and Juan’s] very first customers at Broad Street Coffee,” she says. The Sommervilles have tried vegan cafés all over Europe, and they classify Echo as one of the best. “They have two great chefs here, Will and Carol… We stayed in Athens an extra day so we could eat here tonight. We have such an appreciation for Vanessa and what she’s created here.”
The Molinas met while students at the University of Georgia, when Juan played in Time Toy and Squalls, two local bands. They moved back to Athens less than two years ago, started Broad Street Coffee, eventually outgrew the space and Echo was born. “I’ve always loved this space and even though I thought it was too big, I wanted to take a chance and help make it grow,” Molina says.
And grow it has. The building has blossomed into a peaceful oasis, with bite-size copper leaves delicately covering the outdoor seating area. Little glass baubles on a string reflect the clouds by day and serve as tiny beacons by night. Inside, ancient dark-wood rafters raise the ceiling high and an open kitchen with Tiffany-blue walls remains one of the room’s main focuses.
Will Cantrell, the main cook and kitchen manager at Echo, went vegan six years ago. He’s a redhead from Statesboro with the twinkling blue eyes of a kind grandfather despite being in his 20s. “I’ve always tried to have as little negative impact on the world around me as possible, and I just kind of saw that my support of the industries that create animal products for human consumption are toxic to our environment,” Cantrell says.
Molina cites her love for animals as the reason she became the first vegan in her family. “I feel the same as any animal,” she says. “The pig is equal to me, a cow, a dog… I don’t even
feel superior to an ant.” When traveling in big cities for work, it was easy for Molina to find vegan-friendly restaurants, so moving back to Athens was a difficult transition. “[Echo] started as a small idea and then I thought it might be a good idea to expose more people to why veganism is important,” Molina says, wrapping a black scarf around her neck. She looks like the kind of person that gets cold easily.
To one side of the glass double doors to 255 W. Washington St., the wall is made up of old, weathered brick. On the other side stands new brick of bronze, brick-red and plum tones. The building’s colorful past has melded with its future as downtown Athens’s premier vegan restaurant, creating a new and beautiful whole out of a collage of parts.