On OKC favorite celebrates it 20th birthday 

The Red Cup's founder and owner, Kurt Orth, in front of an iconic Red Cup painting at the 20 year old establishment.  mh
  • The Red Cup's founder and owner, Kurt Orth, in front of an iconic Red Cup painting at the 20 year old establishment. mh

The Red Cup was born when Kurt Orth got tired of drunk people.

The coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant turns 20 this year, which Orth said seemed impossible during the rocky start.

He opened The Red Cup in 1995 with former partner Kelly Sawyer. They were veterans of the restaurant business, and he said they were sick of the daily grind and putting up with late hours and inebriated patrons.

“I’d always enjoyed coffee shops, so we decided to open one,” he said.

After scouting possible locations across the city, they found a home at 3122 N. Classen Blvd. Orth’s father bought the property and rented it to him.

The business faced struggles from the get-go. When it was purchased, the city told him the property was zoned C-3, for commercial use, but when he applied for permits, they said it was actually zoned for a residence. It took a year to iron out those issues and make the necessary repairs.

When they did open, there were still tools sitting out in the dining room. It couldn’t wait to be perfect, Orth said. If they waited for perfection, they would never open.

“We probably made $18 all day, and that was my parents and Kelly’s parents and friends coming in for coffee,” he said.

click to enlarge A slice of vegan chocolate cake at The Red Cup.  mh
  • A slice of vegan chocolate cake at The Red Cup. mh

Menu evolution

Now a haven for vegetarians and vegans, The Red Cup initially offered just three sandwiches and didn’t shy away from meat. Orth and Sawyer slowly built the menu up, and when Sawyer and her sister Jerry Logan opted to leave the business five years in, Orth hired a new cook who just happened to be vegan.

“She could cook meat quite well, even without tasting it, but she did vegetarian specials all the time,” he said. “The ones that became popular were added to the menu.”

At the same time, during a trip to San Francisco, Orth decided to become a vegetarian himself, thanks to Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael. It was an economical and environmental decision, and from then on, any addition to the menu was vegetarian.

“Then, it was like, why be 95 percent vegetarian? Why not go all the way?” Orth said.

New head chef Patrick Clark II, though a meat eater, has taken The Red Cup’s vegetarian ethos and run with it. His focus on seasonality and variety has brought new life to the restaurant.

“Only cooking a vegetarian menu forces you to be creative,” Clark said. “I’m always looking for ways to get the flavors I want and give customers something new.”

Orth said he hired Clark when he was 16 years old to do the “lethal chores” of the restaurant business but has seen him grow and progress into a top-notch chef. In fact, Clark has bought into the business as a partial owner, which ensures the continued services of “Chef Beave” into the future.

What they serve is not necessarily health food, though one can eat there and easily keep an eye on calories. Orth describes it as “vegetarian comfort food,” with favorites such as its renowned Frito chili pie and veggie burgers.

“It’s not on the menu if I don’t like it,” Orth said. “I started out in this business thinking about how to please people, but I realized that you can serve what you like and people trust that.”

The menu isn’t the only eclectic thing about The Red Cup. The clientele is a reliable mix of businessmen in suits, rockers with dyed-bright hair, college kids, old hippies, young hippies and everyone else.

click to enlarge From left, J.W. Jones, Kent Fishcher, Rena Parker, Gary Barton, and Alice Huff, enjoy relaxing food, drink, and talk, at The Red Cup recently.  mh
  • From left, J.W. Jones, Kent Fishcher, Rena Parker, Gary Barton, and Alice Huff, enjoy relaxing food, drink, and talk, at The Red Cup recently. mh

Everyone’s equal

Orth likens it to the pre-Communist Chinese teahouses. Here, as there, everyone is equal once they walk through the door.

“We want a situation where all kinds can come together,” he said. “We don’t have any one kind of people that overwhelms the others.”

This is the kind of laid-back business he dreamed of when he tired of late shifts with drunken customers, and at 20 years in, his wish is that he was a decade younger with the staff he has now.

“I wish I could be 10 years younger with Beave here,” he said.

The Red Cup has an anniversary party each year, but at 20 years, Orth said this one will be bigger than most. More details will soon be announced. Fans of the coffeehouse-turned-vegetarian-haven should mark their calendars for July 25.

Or they can do like the regulars do — the ones who have come in daily for more than a decade — and belly up to the bar tomorrow for a cup of coffee and whatever special is cooking up back in the kitchen.

Print headline: Edible tradition, The Red Cup celebrates two decades in business.

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