Sanctuary Vegan Cafe Brings Plant-Based Cuisine to West Knoxville

As of Dec. 15th, Knoxville officially has a 100% vegan restaurant! Now open at 151 N. Seven Oaks Drive in Windsor Square, Sanctuary Vegan Cafe offers what owner Leslie Naylor calls "everyday comfort food"—mac and cheese, lentil meatball hoagies, nachos, buffalo tofu fingers, and much more. All of this plant-based goodness isn't just for vegans, though. The menu was designed to appeal to anyone who likes hearty favorites made with love from fresh, local, and organic ingredients.

The steady flow of customers Sanctuary Vegan Cafe has seen since opening confirms that the time has definitely come for something like this. In fact, Leslie would go a step further: "It's past time. People come in and say, 'I've been waiting for this!' and I say, 'Me too!'"

When Leslie and her youngest daughter moved to Knoxville, vegan-friendly restaurants were limited. The Tomato Head was the only place they frequented, outside of trips to Asheville to visit eateries like Bean and Rosetta's Kitchen. But it didn't take long for that to get frustrating.  "I made this my mission," Leslie says. "I wanted vegan food, all the vegan food, and I had to drive at least an hour and a half to get it, and that's ridiculous." Begging the owners of Bean to open a location in Knoxville simply didn't cut it, and Leslie decided to do something about it herself.

Vegan For Families of All Species

For the Naylors, veganism is a family matter. Leslie's elder daughter started it all by suggesting that her mom watch the documentary Meet Your Meat. After seeing the film, Leslie and her younger daughter Hayley decided to go vegetarian on the spot.

As a cancer survivor who had already cut out red meat, Leslie initially made the switch for health reasons. She saw results quickly: "I went to my doctor and he was like, "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it'!"

But Leslie's motivations shifted one day about 3 years later when she saw a video in her Facebook feed about a dairy cow who had lost her baby. "Hearing that mama cow just resonated inside my heart so deeply that I told my daughter, 'I'm going vegan'."

Recognizing that being vegan protected not only her family, but other families, was just the push that Leslie needed. Ultimately, both of her daughters and her sister went vegan as well. "Having my daughters right there with me—that's my whole driving force for being vegan," she says.

When The Gentle Barn came to Knoxville 2 years ago, Leslie began volunteering with them immediately. The sanctuary provided a real community and extended family for her in this area, and it was around that time that she started seriously exploring her goal of opening a vegan restaurant.

Bringing the Vegan Cafe to Life

About two years ago, Leslie contacted a vegan chef here in Knoxville to start learning about what it would take to get a restaurant off the ground. The cost involved was a little intimidating, so she backed of for a while to save money and plan.

Several years later, Knoxville was still lacking a vegan restaurant—but now, Leslie had some savings and was more motivated than ever. Her daughter Hayley placed a Craigslist ad for a chef that just happened to catch the eye of Jeffrey Godfrey, a vegan chef who had just relocated to Knoxville from Oklahoma. They met up at a Starbucks to talk, and Leslie hired him on the spot. Since that day, "Chef Dino" has been an integral part of bringing Sanctuary Vegan Cafe to life, from the menu to the interior of the restaurant.

Shortly after finding her chef, she also found a promising location for her cafe next to the Carmike Movies 7 in Windsor Square. But, while the location may have been a lucky find, the interior was far from ideal. When Leslie first visited the space, the windows were all blacked out and everything was dark and dismal. Today, it looks very different: light wood and fresh green paint make the dining room reminiscent of a bright, clean barn, and artwork of animals dots the walls. It's a warm and inviting space, and if Leslie has her way, it's the first of many. She has plans for future locations, including a "vegan hangout with a bar—I just want an old warehouse that we can redo completely!" (As a South Knox resident, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that she'll pick one of the ones on Sevier Avenue!) 

Leslie's ultimate goal has long been to open an animal sanctuary of her own, and Sanctuary Vegan Cafe moves her one step closer to that goal. Her vision includes a bed and breakfast that allows visitors to spend more time with the animals, keeping things a little more peaceful than facilities with frequent visitors and large groups of kids. When the time comes to open, Leslie will move on to managing the sanctuary and Hayley will run the cafe.

In the meantime, credit card tips are going into a savings account that will go toward the cost of the land. Leslie Naylor may have big plans for the future, but for now, she's taking things as they come and focusing on the success of Sanctuary Vegan Cafe. In her words, "It's just a dream come true... I have a vision, I have a future in Knoxville, and it's just such a good feeling."

How You Can Help

  • Visit Sanctuary Vegan Cafe from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2-9 p.m.  on Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. 
  • Leave reviews on Facebook, Happy Cow, and Yelp, and don't forget to upload pictures to entice new people to visit!
  • Join the K-Town Vegans for dinner there on January 4th to connect with other local vegans (see their Meetup even here).

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