In the early 1990s, Asheville was, in essence, a “no man’s land.” Abandoned buildings made up a large portion of a once thriving downtown, now a victim of physical and economical decay.
It seemed nobody wanted to take a chance on the city, save for a few early entrepreneurs and visionaries. And it was at that time when Joan and Joe Eckert rolled into town.
“Back then, Asheville was basically deserted,” Joan noted. “When we arrived in 1991, we were living way out in Madison County. We wanted to do something, and I had a culinary background, so we opened a lunch counter at the YMCA in Downtown Asheville.”
That small lunch counter, known as the Laughing Seed Café, became a hub for those who worked out in the YMCA.
“Everyone ate at our place,” Joan said. “And one of our regulars was this guy named Julian Price, who had inherited a large sum of money and was looking to invest in Downtown Asheville.”
A beloved philanthropist and community activist, Price passed away in 2001. But, his legacy lives on in every facet of where Asheville stands today. And one of those facets is the Laughing Seed Café—an iconic vegetarian restaurant in the heart of Asheville on Wall Street.
“Julian was looking to purchase abandoned buildings and renovate them into new businesses. And we were the first loan he gave to start Laughing Seed Café downtown,” Joan said.
In 2018, the Laughing Seed Café celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“Twenty-five years just completely amazes me. And the past two years have been our most profitable years yet,” Joan said. “And it just continues to grow—there are still so many people just finding out about us.”
Though the menu at Laughing Seed Café is focused on vegetarian cuisine, it also harbors a European flare, something close to Joan’s heart.
“Growing up in Philadelphia, I had a mother who was an incredible cook,” Joan said. “And we lived in Europe when I was a kid, which I think really impacted the style and menu we have here.”
Throughout its existence, the restaurant has aimed to change the idea of what a vegetarian establishment could be, whether you’re a vegetarian or simply curious about the style of food.
“Our thing has been to always be really accessible, so that people who are traditionally meat eaters would feel just as comfortable coming in as vegetarians,” Joan said. “And, I feel, even at this time, most of our customers are not vegetarians. They’re people who are eating healthier, more interested in vegetarian cuisine, and who really love the food. It’s flavorful. It’s eclectic. That was my goal, to make it not what you think vegetarian food is going to be, that there’s more to it than just salads and casseroles.”
For Joan, she still enjoys coming to work every day. It’s inspiring to see all the satisfied smiles on the faces of her customers, whether it’s their first time or hundredth time dining at their location.
“I love the creativity. That’s been the most fun—coming up with recipes and decorating the dishes,” Joan said. “We all support each other. And this city has always supported my business. I really like walking in here and working in the kitchen on a busy Saturday. It makes me happy, and I am proud of it.”