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Lydia Kindheart at her Sunflower Center in Petaluma. (Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat)

Sachi Denison-Woods works with kids during a kids crafts session at the Sunflower Center.

Lydia Kindheart at her Sunflower Center in Petaluma. (Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat)

Picture yourself in a warm, peaceful, spacious room set with small tables. Some of the tables are occupied, people chatting quietly and eating, for this quiet haven in a business park at the far north end of town is a restaurant—and a place where the community is welcomed.

The Sunflower Center, for that is its name, is the latest step on the life path of 49-year-old Lydia Kindheart.

Kindheart is not only her last name, “it is the person I aspire to be,” she explained. “It brings energy and support for me to be that way.”

Since she was a child, Kindheart said, “I have always wanted to feed people.” And so, after years of “bailing out of society because I did not like what I saw,” years of living in a self-built bus and earning her way by making and selling jewelry, she got to the point where she knew she needed to re-enter the world to “try and make a difference.”

She ended up in Fairfax, where she owned an ethnic art and jewelry shop. By this time, her lifelong interest in food had sprouted and grown. She’d been interested in health and wellness for years, had mastered cooking and eating in harmony with nature and shared her nutritional discoveries. “There was a juice bar around the corner,” she said. “And people were asking why didn’t I sell the food I made?”

And so Lydia’s Organics was born. Oh, it wasn’t yet the array of products that are now on shelves in health food stores nationwide. Back then it was a small eatery and, she said, “I’ve been told it was the first raw food restaurant, or deli, in California.” She explored other avenues including food delivery service and catering events. By then, “I was a single mom. My daughter helped chop carrots and celery and I worked out of my mom’s patio. It was a family business.”

It was also successful. Eventually she began wholesaling, sold at farmers markets, launched a dehydrated food line and opened a second Fairfax restaurant. But all that, she said, “was a big learning curve. There was too much going on and I needed to focus.” She closed the restaurant, but later reopened it because “I love feeding the community. I am a community-minded person.” By now, she estimates, she’s fed more than 2 million people.

When the business outgrew the building, “I moved everything up to Petaluma.” She smiled. “I can do so much more here. I’ve wanted a big community space, a place for kids, for movement and dance. This space appeals to all walks of life and all age groups.”

The restaurant offers organic, gluten-free and vegan cooked and raw foods. At the Sunflower Center, Kindheart emphasized, “food does not taste like cardboard. People who are heavy meat eaters walk out satiated—and surprised.”

Sachi Denison-Woods works with kids during a kids crafts session at the Sunflower Center.

The center, as she wanted, is not merely a restaurant, but a place where all are welcomed. “We’ve gotten a great response from the community.” She’s hoping to do even more, reaching out especially to seniors and teens. Kindheart feels both groups need a welcoming place and she knows everyone needs smiles and friendly faces.

Today, the restaurant starts its second year. “There’s so much more we want to do,” Kindheart said eagerly. “There’s land here. I want a farm so we can pick the food we grow, community gardens so people can experience growing their own vegetables.

“I want to teach cooking classes. I want this food to be available to everybody, want to open more Sunflower Centers.”

And she would like to open a health clinic “where no one is turned away. There are not a lot of choices,” she said, “when people are ill.” Kindheart wants to offer the opportunity for non-traditional, alternative medicine. “I feel health and well-being is a birthright. Everyone should have access to it. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but I’ll go as far as I can.”

She admitted she’s challenged financially, but “I’m making good decisions. This has been my journey.” And, she’s living her dream, “even though I didn’t realize I was doing it until I was in the middle of it.”

Why does she call it the Sunflower Center?

“We were brainstorming for a name,” Kindheart said. “I’ve been called a sunflower by some. The sunflower follows the sun, and the sun gives us life and warmth.” Also, she belives, “we are all petals, and this,” gesturing around the pleasant space, “is the center.”

The Sunflower Center is located at 1435 N. McDowell Blvd., Building 100, in Petaluma. More information is available at lydiasorganics.com, 792-5300. 

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