All vegetarians and vegans have their own reasons for choosing a diet free of meat and other animal products. For former physician Matt Clayton, it was simply to run faster. “It’s not complicated at all,” he chuckles. “I was very stagnant in my half-marathon time and was looking for something to give me an edge to improve my numbers.”
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Four years and several half marathons later, Clayton is now at the helm of St. Paul’s much-anticipated plant-based restaurant, J. Selby’s, which opened April 17, 2017. He never would have guessed, upon leaving his 18-year career as a trauma surgeon, that he would be opening a restaurant only a few years later, but one dinner in February 2016 changed everything.
While Clayton was staying in Phoenix to run the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon, he used Yelp to find a place to eat dinner and stumbled upon Green New American Vegetarian. “We ate there and walked out of that place and I thought, ‘I need this restaurant at home. This is exactly what we’re missing.’”
Clayton felt so inspired by his dining experience at Green Vegetarian that he reached out to the chef-owner, Damon Brasch, to see if he would ever consider opening a similar plant-based comfort food joint in the Twin Cities. After Brasch politely declined to bring his business north, Clayton decided he would go for it himself.
“This is my first foray into the restaurant world,” Clayton says. “This is not anything that I’ve had experience with beforehand, except as a longtime diner.” He started piecing together the future menu for J. Selby’s by taking a look at the menus of his favorite vegan restaurants around the country, such as Veggie Grill and Chicago Diner, as well as some of his favorite dishes to make at home, like his spicy faux chipotle sausage tofu scramble and hashbrowns. While refining dishes like the chili-and-lime-crusted fried tofu sandwich with chef Rick Berdahl, Clayton went full steam ahead with renovations converting a storefront on Selby and Victoria into his restaurant, a process which took over five months. He named his restaurant J. Selby’s in honor of Jeremiah Selby, a potato farmer who made his homestead on present-day Cathedral Hill.
Vegans like Clayton will appreciate being able to walk into a mainstream restaurant and take their pick from any item on the menu without feeling like an afterthought, but Clayton says the vegans are only one target for him. “We are also working hard to appeal to omnivores with food that looks and tastes familiar,” he says. “But rather than tell them how great vegan food can be, let’s show them.” Among the menu items Clayton is most eager to serve are the Spicy Beet Burgers, The Philly (“I served that to my dad. He didn’t even know it wasn’t beef.”), and the Cheeze Cake.
Clayton’s dream is for J. Selby’s to do well enough to inspire a second restaurant down the road, but for now, he is excited to bring the best of vegan dining to St. Paul and lead the wave of plant-based restaurants in the Twin Cities. “If this is successful, there’ll be people jumping on the bandwagon right and left,” Clayton predicts. “I think we’re going to see a huge explosion of options here. I hope so.”