The Greatest Veggie Burger in Cape Town or Maybe the Whole World
Sunshine Food Co.’s founder and microgreen farmer Elisha Madzivadondo has been vegan since before he heard the word — now he’s spreading it
The bright yellow wall at Sunshine Food Co. in Sea Point, Cape Town, a 12-square yard restaurant with crates spilling with bright produce and wooden stools to seat five at a push, is an unexpected sight on the busy main road. Peeking out of a functional block of doctor’s rooms, it draws plenty of attention from passersby — some are tourists wandering about the seaside neighborhood, others locals rushing to and from work. They often pause around the shin-high boxes of microgreens — these are greens harvested once the cotyledon leaves develop — outside the door. Freshly pressed juices with names like ‘Ginger Royale’ and ‘Wow,’ smoothies, a custom-made vegan burger patty, and the occasional homemade cake are served starting in the early morning.
When I lived in the area a decade ago, there was a slow bloom of gentrification and a proliferation of coffee shops modeled after the Scandi aesthetic, but none like this. “Vegan Café. Plant-based Lifestyle,” the signboard outside reads. We could be at a farmer’s market or juice stand in the Caribbean, and this is precisely the feel Elisha Madzivadondo, a Zimbabwean immigrant farmer and owner of Sunshine Food Co, wanted to create. What sets the restaurant apart is that 80% of the meals prepared here include microgreens and sprouts grown and harvested by Madzivadondo. Then there’s the price point: a hearty lunch costs less than $8, including a fresh juice, around 1/3 less than similar eateries in the area.
“I’m serving a mostly wealthy community, people have said my prices are cheap. But I know what it costs me to grow per gram and my conscience won’t allow me [to raise prices],” he says. “And one day soon I hope more from my own community will come eat here.”
Patties can be served on activated charcoal buns prepared at a bakery nearby, stuffed into a tortilla, served “bunless,” or rolled in a blanket of sushi rice and seaweed, like gimbap. “My burger is a masterpiece. When I plate it, I can’t rush, it has to be balanced.”
For his dishes, Madzivadondo uses sunflower and dun pea microgreens predominantly, as well as sprouts like alfalfa, mung bean, fenugreek and brown lentils. Research has shown that broccoli microgreens, for example, have a far denser nutritional value than mature florets. “Have you seen horses that eat alfalfa? Their coats are so healthy,” says Madzivadondo. The remaining vegetable patty ingredients are roasted sweet potato and butternut squash, mung bean and lentil sprouts, cumin and herbs like rosemary and thyme.
Lightly toasted in coconut oil, the patties are topped with black beans, a mound of zesty microgreens, sprouts, and a “secret” fermented lemon sauce that he claims is more beneficial to the digestive tract than kimchi. Patties can be served on activated charcoal buns prepared at a bakery nearby, stuffed into a tortilla, served “bunless,” or rolled in a blanket of sushi rice and seaweed, like gimbap.
“My burger is a masterpiece,” he says, “When I plate it, I can’t rush, it has to be balanced.” At noon, a slew of UberEats drivers gather around the doorway for their orders — it’s just Madzivadondo and his wife Abigail Mapfumo behind the counter. Nazreen Amien, a regular who lives 30 minutes away and who tries to visit fortnightly, and five Czech tourists who are here on a yoga retreat, wait patiently along with the delivery drivers for juices and the famous burger.
“My people think that being a vegan is for thin, white people. Some think it’s a cult, a religion or worry they will go hungry if they visit me. I tell them, look what this government has done with the seeds. Don’t do it for the earth or the animals or to save the world. Do it for your health first and foremost.”
When I first chat with Madzivadondo, he’s suffered a burglary at this home in Pinelands — not the first time, he says. Mapfumo is still distraught. He shoots his wife a worried glance. But it is a reality of life in South Africa, in rich and poor neighborhoods.
Reconciling diet and health with the socio-economic struggles is fraught, even on the best of days. “My people think that being a vegan is for thin, white people. Some think it’s a cult, a religion or worry they will go hungry if they visit me,” he says. “I tell them, look what this government has done with the seeds. Don’t do it for the earth or the animals or to save the world. Do it for your health first and foremost.” For those contemplating veganism and in a liminal space, he suggests flexitarianism — something Mapfumo and his son Theo have adopted.
A market vendor (he still frequents four major markets across the city — with no help), Madzivadondo’s sprouting caught the attention of community-based practitioners, Dr. Elisabeth Parker and her husband. Parker noted feeling energized after eating the burgers topped with microgreens. “We all know that good health starts in the gut,” she says on a phone call, referring to the adage “you are what you eat.” The Parkers were determined to assist Madzivadondo with a stable space so they converted their surgery space, making room for the café that he rents for a nominal amount each month. Many of their patients have become loyal customers.
Madzivadondo would spend the next decade working as a gardener, handyman, and eventually a butler in a plush ocean-front suburb nearby. Managing an upmarket private guesthouse, he trained as a chef and served guests lavish salad bowls with his kitchen counter sprouts on the days they didn’t request steak or chicken.
Madzivadondo’s journey winds back to 2003 when he arrived in South Africa hoping to farm mushrooms. “We learned that colonization in southern Africa started in Cape Town, so I came, not for the mountains and the ocean, but to connect with this history,” he says. He soon realized there was no government-subsidized land available. Madzivadondo would spend the next decade working as a gardener, handyman, and eventually a butler in a plush ocean-front suburb nearby. Managing an upmarket private guesthouse, he trained as a chef and served guests lavish salad bowls with his kitchen counter sprouts on the days they didn’t request steak or chicken.
A vegan since the age of 15 — he tells me: “I didn’t know the term [vegan]. I come from a very rural area, so I only learned this later in life” — in 2013, he started cultivating microgreens on a tiny plot at Oude Molen Eco Village in Pinelands, 10 miles away. Madzivadondo shows me his aging copy of Sprouts — Elixir of Life by John H. Tobe, the source of his education in the art of sprouting which began back in 1990. Shedding his butler role, Madzivadondo rented a market stall, offering vegan burgers to a suburban clientele. He sold microgreens to curious market goers on condition they return his soil, which he tends to with the utmost care.
“Don’t bother sprouting if you can’t commit to watering on time. It’s like the love you give your teeth. Treat them with that kind of dedication.”
“The medium is more important than anything. My microgreens rest on trestles, they don’t touch the ground I rent. I make the compost from cuttings and the peels I use in the restaurant,” he explains. All the fruit and vegetables are from organic farmers, he says, save for apples that are tough to certify locally. “You can buy all the expensive vegan food in the supermarket, but you have no idea what’s in it,” he says.
At the café, sprouts grow in rows of jars, mounted on the wall and must be tended to at an appointed time daily — 5am, in this case. If you skip an hour, they will go into survival mode and tense up, Madzivadondo warns. The jars are bundled home with him each day. “Don’t bother sprouting if you can’t commit to watering on time. It’s like the love you give your teeth,” he says, “Treat them with that kind of dedication.” That’s something I think about at least twice a day after meeting Madzivadondo and his travelling jars of sprouts and boxes of microgreens.