Good Food

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A day with Denise Mari, New York City’s organic, vegan, and raw food guru

Denise Mari

(Photo Credit: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good NYC)

 

When I meet Organic Avenue founder Denise Mari at the brand’s headquarters on the Lower East Side, five 20-something employees wearing LOVE* tees are carrying stacks of Just Pure Foods boxes, full of zucchini sticks and kale chips, into the basement. “They’re new!” one tells me excitedly. In the back, an OA veteran tells recent hires “the main difference between juicing and blending is the fiber.” A giant cleanse delivery van idles out front.

So it’s hard to imagine Mari, 12 years ago, just a few blocks away in her loft apartment on Ludlow Street, selling supplements and superfoods next to her bed. “My neighbors were complaining about the loud Vitamix going at three or four in the morning,” she laughs. “So it was time to move.”

While Mari joined forces with entrepreneur Doug Evans to start her business, it’s been her quiet, confident vision and commitment to a larger concept she often refers to as “consciousness” that has allowed Organic Avenue to grow from an underground bodega into a brand that celebrities proudly sip.

THE ROOTS OF HER VISION

Mari is the most understated guru you’ll ever meet. Unlike the loud proclamations of an evangelist, she speaks slowly and quietly, putting thought into every syllable. She wears a nameplate necklace that reads “Love” instead of Denise.

Denise Mari Organic Avenue founder recipe

Mari’s how-to video for Salsa LOVE Boats, one of many on Youtube

And yet you immediately sense that the roots of her vision run deep. When I ask her if she had an epiphany that turned her on to veganism, juicing, and raw foods, she says, matter-of-factly,“I’ve been having them my whole life.”

The first was when, at age eight, she lost her younger sister to Leukemia. “Everyone has these things that kind of shape them as they grow,” Mari explains. “For me, it made me question everything and made me very aware of how fragile life is.”

She was also always an animal lover, and gave up eating fish at age ten after a fishing trip with her father that devastated her. “Some innate sensitivity tripped me towards becoming a vegetarian,” she says.

She became a full vegetarian in college, and soon began delving into veganism and raw foods, drawing inspiration from Ann Wigmore, the Hippocrates Health Institute, and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Mari describes each step as the next step in the evolution of her consciousness—reading food labels, thinking about environmental impact, learning about cleansing, and so on.

Mari lives with her son, Oliver, who is now two years old, in DUMBO.

Later, cancer struck both her father and brother, but her family was unreceptive when she presented her lifestyle as a possible path towards wellness. This experience seems to have shaped her approach to spreading the health food gospel.

Rather than proselytizing, she spends her time creating healthy, conscious options and puts them out in the world where people are likely to choose them. “I’ve learned you have to focus on yourself and, like Gandhi said, just be the change you’re trying to make. That’s the only way it works. You can really only do what people are ready for.”

MOVING FORWARD

These days, Mari doesn’t need to convince people of her foods’ benefits or tastiness. Orange Organic Avenue bags are practically as ubiquitous as Starbucks cups on city streets. And for the newest fall menu launches, she worked with a Michelin-starred chef. 

And then there’s Mari herself, slim and glowing at 38 after 13 years as a vegan, with a serenity about her every action that you can’t help but want for yourself. (Is it the kale?!)

As the company grows (the 11th location will open this year), she’s doing her best to keep the overarching Organic Avenue lifestyle—from animal rights to a commitment to organics—at the core of every new store.

“If you have a vision, and you allow it to be compromised, that’s when you start having issues,” she says. “It’s really important that what was started in that loft space doesn’t go away—that it keeps the same soul.” —Lisa Elaine Held

For more information, visit www.organicavenue.com

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