divorce and a chance encounter led one vegan restaurant Owner to open the loopy leaf
After opening an acclaimed restaurant in Harpers Ferry with her then-husband five years ago, Sondra Zahn eventually found herself facing divorce with the very partner she had worked with to help Kelly Farm Kitchen earn its high praise. But instead of throwing her for a loop, adversity led her to one.
Fast-forward several months, and you’ll find Zahn not only enjoying a new life, a new love, and a new hometown in Charleston, but also as the proud owner of one of the city’s hottest new restaurants: a hip, welcoming vegan cafe called The Loopy Leaf. It’s an appropriate name, since the story of how it came to be took a path that was anything but straight.
“I started cooking when I was 4 years old and always knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Zahn says on a break between customers just after a big lunch rush. “But I ended up spending 17 years in the car business when I grew up and only did some occasional baking and catering here and there.”
In fact, Zahn had absolutely no restaurant experience when a friend first asked her and her then-husband to open a place in an empty building in Harpers Ferry. But they dove in anyway and soon found themselves proud owners of a super-successful vegan eatery.
So successful, in fact, that Yelp picked the restaurant for its prestigious “Top 100 Places to Eat” list in 2021. And not just on the list, but at the very top of it—in the No. 1 spot. Not bad for a small vegan place in little ol’ West Virginia.
“The recognition and the response it brought were incredible, but it turns out a husband–wife team working together every minute of the day to try to run a restaurant ended up not being great for the marriage,” Zahn says, with a chuckle that comes easy now. The couple went their separate ways. He kept the restaurant, and she plotted her next move, which led to accepting a guest chef job at a fancy bed and breakfast in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. One night, the property’s owner came to town from California. They met, Zahn says, and it was love at first sight. “I’m not even like that,” she laughs, “but one look was all it took.”
They began dating, trying to make the long-distance thing work, but the California–West Virginia gap proved to be a very long distance. Her new beau found work in Charleston and moved to be closer to her. She followed him to the state’s capital city and immediately began her search for a space where she could open a new restaurant.
“I joined a local vegan group on Facebook and soon learned that there was actually a great restaurant space available right downtown,” she said. That space was the site of the former Melange Café on the corner of Virginia and Summers streets—and it was hers just a few months later. Never mind that, as the site of a revolving door of failed restaurants through the years, it had a reputation of being somewhat of a “cursed” location. “The bank warned me about that and said they weren’t sure a vegan restaurant would survive in this part of the state, no matter the location,” she recalls. “But I told them, trust me, I don’t fail. This is the same successful restaurant I’ve opened before, just in a new building. I got this.”
That was in August 2021, only a month after moving to town. The Loopy Leaf opened to rave reviews just two months later, offering a massive menu of nearly 100 vegan, plant-based items.
It’s a place to get the fresh salads, tofu dishes, and the ramen bowls you might expect, but The Loopy Leaf is perhaps best known for its appeal to people who aren’t vegans. As such, the restaurant offers a meat-free selection of towering burgers, sloppy hot dogs, stuffed sandwiches, and more that have vegans and carnivores alike drooling.
That approachable menu is intentional. “I want to show people that vegan food doesn’t have to be just sticks and grass,” says Zahn, adding that she’s been vegan herself for the past seven years. “You can be vegan and still enjoy really good food—regular restaurant food, traditional American foods—that are better for you, for the environment, for the animals.”
The Charleston community seems to have embraced the concept with open arms.
“We’ve tapped into this hidden community of vegans, but we also have a big following of regulars who never really thought about vegan food before and they absolutely love it,” she says. “They just keep coming back for those big messy burgers and the homemade crab cake, plus they’re now wanting to try new things. That is what’s really cool.”