From General Surgeon to Vegan Restaurant Owner with Matt Clayton




Matt Clayton was a General Surgeon for 18 years before leaving the practice. He shifted to a new career and opened J. Selby's, my all-time favorite vegan restaurant. His journey to veganism began from a desire to shave time off of his marathon times. In this episode, Carly and Matt dive into these stories and more.


Please note, this episode has been transcribed by a computer, expect some typos!


Carly Puch

Welcome back to another episode of Consciously Clueless. I'm your host, Carly, and I'll be your guide on this journey from consciousness to cluelessness and back around again. Today on the podcast, I have Matt Clayton, Matt worked as a general surgeon for 18 years before deciding to go into the restaurant business. He is the owner of one of my favorite vegan restaurants of all time. In St. Paul, Minnesota, J selfies. Matt does an amazing job of creating an environment that you not only want to go to if you're vegan, but you want to bring all your non vegan friends because they will find something they love. Here we go.


So thank you for joining me. Pleasure casts. I'm really excited to chat with you. If you have listened or not, that's okay. But the podcast is called consciously clueless. And I chose that name because I thought it really well suited the idea of this journey of like, sometimes you're like, Yeah, I get it. I'm totally conscious and with it, and then other days, you're like, I have no idea what I'm doing. So I like to ask people, where are your feeling right now on that spectrum from conscious to clueless?


Matt Clayton

Oh, pretty conscious. Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think I think that that's my personality, though.


Carly Puch

What do you mean?


Matt Clayton

Oh. That's just, that's just got a person I am. I guess. I feel like I'm more conscious than coolest person generally.


Carly Puch

Like kind of always exploring and digging into stuff and yep.


Matt Clayton

Yep, for sure. Beautiful way to live. Unless it's not.


Carly Puch

Let's just say it is


Matt Clayton

sure. Why not.


Carly Puch

So you are the owner of Jay Selby is my favorite vegan restaurant did tell me about that journey. Where did that come from?


Matt Clayton

The long story or the abbreviated version.


Carly Puch

Got a while ago. And long story tell us everything?


Matt Clayton

Well, so I was a practicing physician for many years, and had decided that it was time for me to leave that part behind and move on. And so at the end of 2015, I stepped away from medical practice without any real idea of what I was going to do next, so I might have been a clueless face. And spent some time at that point I was had already been plant based for several years, okay, and had kind of launched into the whole plant based thing. As a result of running distance, half marathon distance, and I was really looking to improve my running times. And had been reading a lot about the athletes that were primarily plant based and doing quite well, Rich Roll. People like that. All right, where was I?


Carly Puch

So let's go back to you. We're trying to who you are, trot. You are plant based, inspired by the likes of ritual. Sure. And trying to shave some time off of half marathons. Yep. And


Matt Clayton

networks that work great, actually. So I was happy about that, anyway, stepped away from medical practice looking for something to do. Ended up going down to Phoenix for a half my half marathon, the Phoenix half marathon, which is all downhill by the way. And in February looks nice, tend to be in Phoenix. And we ended up at a restaurant in Phoenix called Green vegetarian, which is really a vegan restaurant. And we really enjoyed it. I had we kind of walked out of the Green said, she'd be great if there was a place like that in the Twin Cities. So upon returning to the Twin Cities actually contacted the owner of green and asked if he would be interested in doing a project in the Twin Cities. And he said no, he had grown up in Chicago and he was not interested in living north of Phoenix.


Carly Puch

Fair enough.


Matt Clayton

So I asked if he would be offended if I use his restaurant as a template, and he said though he'd be he'd be honored. And so the journey to J celebrates had begun. went out. And I had been walking a lot that winter and had walked past that corner. Many times with it all boarded up with signs on the window for lease. So I actually called the landlord and got a tour through the space, which was a disaster. Oh, really? Oh, terrible. rundown. And but, you know, we had the vision and could see making that quarter ours. And so there we are a year and a half later we were open.


Carly Puch

So did you have any restaurant experience? Or what did you I mean, uh, you were a physician. So you're an intelligent human, but the restaurant business is a whole nother ballgame?


Matt Clayton

It is indeed. Well, I worked in restaurants, primarily as a cook through early college, high school and early college before starting on the medical journey, so what is it like, I'd never been in a restaurant before. But I hadn't for many years. 30 plus years? I did. I do cook all the time, at home. So, you know, it's not like I'm a stranger to the kitchen. Right. And when I knew that, I wasn't going to stick in practicing medicine for ever, which I knew many years before I stepped away. I actually had thought that I would maybe do healthcare administration work. Okay. And so I had actually gone back to school to get an MBA. And so what I discovered during that time was the worst job maybe on the planet was healthcare administration. So I abandon that plan. But I guess like, I didn't have any business experience, right, you know, generally knew what I was doing, I thought, but, yeah, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Right. So, so I jumped in.


Carly Puch

So what made you leave your practice, if I can ask


Matt Clayton

burnout? Yeah, make it simple. I mean, it's always a long. It's a long journey. I actually had a benign brain tumor that was removed and left me deaf in one year. And what's deficit deficits, primarily imbalance. But it also makes sleep deprivation really difficult for me. I really get for lack of a scientific term kind of wonky. When I when I don't get good sleep. And there are not many gigs as a general surgeon, or not many gigs in general surgery that don't involve taking call with the possibility you could be up all night. Yeah. So that was kind of my, when I came to the conclusion that really, at some point, I was gonna have to step away from taking call that would really mean stepping away from practice. Right. But then there was, you know, a million other things that came together to make me want to get out so I did. Well, selfishly.


Carly Puch

I'm glad you did.


Matt Clayton

Awesome. Somebody would have done if it wasn't me. So


Carly Puch

because I'm I live way up north Minnesota. So it is my treat every single time when I go to the cities, at least at least once to go to JSL B's


Matt Clayton

so glad. Where are you up north?


Carly Puch

In Grand Marais?


Matt Clayton

Oh, we're up in Grand Prairie this summer.


Carly Puch

No, yeah, it's beautiful. I grew up here and came back as an adult and have a new appreciation for it. So now that I'm not necessarily teenager understood, but yeah, it's a it's a beautiful place to be but there's not a vegan restaurant. Not so there's a few options here and there. But going to GSLV is is such a treat.


Matt Clayton

Well yeah. I kind of when we when we started the whole thing. And people would say why are you doing this? And I said well, I was tired of being the afterthought and everybody's menu planning.


Carly Puch

Yes. Yes. are tired of eating aside salad and fries.


Matt Clayton

Exactly. You know, you go out to eat with people and there would be this, you know, whole long, you know, 50 items that they could choose from and then it's like, oh, what are you gonna have? It's like, fries. Yeah, no, I'm sick of that.


Carly Puch

Every vegan has been through that. No, of course. At a restaurant of eating for as a sign of fries.


Matt Clayton

Absolutely, absolutely.


Carly Puch

So, in terms of opening the restaurant, I think it's a really cool story. I had no idea that you were a practicing physician must feel like another life at this point. But I think it's inspiring because a lot of times we think of, oh, I have this idea, you know, like, I want to open a restaurant, but I have to have XYZ, and maybe that's 15 years experience or whatever it is. And to be able to be like, I'm going to do this. Yeah, I'm inspired by this restaurant that I went to and Phoenix. Well, and we're going to make it work.


Matt Clayton

Most most surgeons don't really lack for self confidence. Well, I guess that's a good thing. Oh, yeah. No, yeah, absolutely. You know, what someone I'm really confident surgeon, you know, what somebody's operating on you who thinks they might be able to do that surgery? Somebody knows I can do it. So yeah, totally down with that thought. But yeah, I mean, I agree, though, I think that a lot of these things that we worry about getting done, really are fears in our own head, that maybe are really as real as we think they're, yeah. You know, you could push through most of them. It doesn't mean it's an easy process,


Carly Puch

but Right, right, right. But they're possible. Yeah, for sure. What I really also appreciate about you know, following you on, on social media, Jay selfies and, and just knowing more about the organization is the restaurant, but it feels like an organization, just because you also take a stance on important things going on in the world or your responses, or your responses to things even when one of the times you are broken into. I remember seeing a video that you made. And in response, you were asking people to participate in meatless Mondays. Yeah, I was like, Wow, what an interesting response to having their restaurant broken into


Matt Clayton

Oh, yeah, that was that was right after Thanksgiving. We, every year on Thanksgiving, we do food giveaway. It's been our tradition that we have every year except this year, opened up our doors and had people come in and just pick up a free meal. And, and you know, people want to leave donations. So we share, we set up a donation stand for that we had collected money that year for the Hiawatha encampment. Okay, when that was happening, and yeah, we'd collected like $5,000 to donate. That was in our safe, and they still are safe. So somebody broke in now is on Thursday, and somebody broke in Saturday morning, early morning. You know, smashed in the door, broke up, some furniture in the basement still walked off when they walked up with part of the desk and the safe safe was bolted to the desk and the wall. And they had the wall and and the desk and they walked out the door with it. Yeah, you know, what are you going to do?


Carly Puch

So what made you have a response then to ask people to be more vegan? Like, what was that process


Matt Clayton

people? So that got a lot of press that we've been broken into. And our donations have been stolen? And primarily because a lot of people a Thanksgiving is apparently a really slow news day. So that Thanksgiving morning, all of the TV stations were over at the restaurant. Oh, wow. What are you doing? And we're like, well, we're giving away food like we do all the time. So so it was a follow up for a lot of them. And so we got a lot more press on that than we probably deserved. Turns out as I came to learn later that the person that stole our safe had broken into over 100 restaurants. So what's were part of a spree? My gosh,


Carly Puch

that's a job. That's a career.


Matt Clayton

Oh, yeah. Yeah, they were doing well. Anyway. So we got but we got the press. You know, that's the way it works. So all of a sudden people are calling and emailing and texting and Social media messaging that they wanted to donate money to us as like, you know, insurance is gonna make us whole, or you know, we're insured well. But you know, if you want to do something, do something that's useful for the planet, which I don't I don't need your help right now. I mean, I appreciate the offers. Right? That's, that's awesome. But, you know, let's do something to really further the cause more than just donate money to the restaurant. So that was the impetus behind that.


Carly Puch

Well, I think it was really great, because it was a reminder of the connection, right to everything. And that, like, yeah, and we really appreciate you wanting to donate and make an impact. Here's another way to make an impact. Here's why we have a vegan restaurant, you know, like subliminal


Matt Clayton

messaging? Well, no, it's our you know, we went through the sometimes tedious exercise that all businesses should go through, at some point, having a mission and a vision statement. So, you know, your your mission statement is, what are you doing right now? You know, how are you? How are you conducting yourself right now. And your vision should be what's your long term vision for the future. And the JSL B's vision statement is really clear that our vision is that plant based eating will become the norm, not the exception. So we're just, you know, trying to act consistent with our vision.


Carly Puch

Right? Well, that's a pretty cool vision.


Matt Clayton

It might be cool, but it's kind of the the necessity.


Carly Puch

It's well, yeah. I mean, it's cool for a restaurant to have that vision, that to make it beyond just what you're doing, you know, like that connection piece that I think we lose a lot with food, specifically.


Matt Clayton

Oh, for sure. But, you know, I think that you have to be particularly conscious, maybe a little bit. But once you start digging into the food supply in the food sourcing, even scratching the surface, you soon find that there are unsustainable practices in place that are never going to get us 50 years into the future. Right, things change. So that's our so are there for


Carly Puch

so when you went vegan? Was it just you started with, you know, wanting to shave time off of half marathon? So, so it was a healthy start? Would you say,


Matt Clayton

well, so I'm gonna, I'm gonna play semantics, because, again, surgeons are very semantic people. I actually was plant based for years, without even considering veganism. Okay. So, you know, I really, veganism really surrounds the whole idea of animal welfare and animal rights and animal preservation, and not eating or using animals for things that the to eat or other items. Clothing, right. So I really didn't think about veganism at all, when I started. I mean, I started as a plant based person really, as a health and physical experiment for myself, which is now going on for eight years. But, but that was really kind of an experiment. Of course, the minute that I tried started it, everyone I knew said no, you won't even last a week. That true, but here we are. So that was that was fun. But it wasn't really until I had retired from medicine. And I just wanted to keep my medical credentials up. You know, you never know a restaurant can be a speculative business. safety net backup plan. Exactly. backup plan. So I had I had done so well, that's so I stepped in and did the T. Colin Campbell, plant based nutrition course through Cornell, which is a lot of continuing medical education credits, which was nice. But that really kind of made me understand in a way that I had never been taught before that eating animals is completely not necessarily friggin nutritional needs, right, and in fact, is detrimental to your health. So if you think when you get to that true understand Adding that it's not necessary, and it's actually bad for you, then you kind of have to say, well, that's a lot of killing for no good reason. You know, first, something that's actually doing you harm, right? That's really kind of gets hard to hard to embrace. So I think at that point I would have, I would embrace the vegan culture, but it probably wasn't until then. So what your years in


Carly Puch

identifying with the semantics, is that kind of like activism piece coming in? Would you say?


Matt Clayton

Well, I think that there are plenty of people who can pursue a plant based diet, as you are already eluding for other reasons, whether they want to protect the planet, whether they want to improve their health, improve their physical performance, you know, whatever. And technically, they're not vegans. If you choose to go that way, because you are opposed to the animal portion of it, then yes, you are a vegan. Technically.


Carly Puch

So that's the that's the difference, right? When we're talking about semantics, vegans


Matt Clayton

are a subset of plant based eaters. You should know, I should I should clarify that. All social media posting for GSLV says not done by me. I have not the person for that. It's not my medium


Carly Puch

at all. Well, whenever I see new posts and food, I'm always like, oh, man, do I need to go to the cities anytime soon?


Matt Clayton

Well, that would be Casey, who's our social media person? And Casey has been with me since the very beginning. Since before there wasn't j cell base. Oh, wow. And Lindsay, who's our general manager, okay, the two of them manage virtually all of the social media posting. So I have nothing to do with it. Except occasionally to provide context.


Carly Puch

Right. So back to becoming plant based, I'll use the right term. But when you were becoming plant based, it was for health, and it was for like a marathon kind of stuff. So would you say that after taking the Cornell course that was when you that was like the switch? Like you said, that was when you started learning more? Did you kind of dive into environment stuff or animal stuff? I feel like a lot of people I've talked to there's a domino effect, like there's like, oh, this issue, and then I learned about this issue. And then, you know, yeah,


Matt Clayton

I mean, I really came at it from this physical performance and health aspect, you know, Forks Over Knives, rebel, sustain, that kind of thing. So when I started, I really was really serious, whole food plant based sort of thing. And then the Cornell course really did kind of put a lot of the environmental issues in front of me and kind of where I wasn't really maybe as aware of those. And so that was interesting. And then the animal piece, I would attribute primarily to Melanie joy. Melanie, you know, kind of watched a couple of her talks, and she's, she's pretty effective.


Carly Puch

Yeah, I'll link some of her talks in the show notes of this


Matt Clayton

making, making you think about, you know, why you eat what you eat?


Carly Puch

Right? Yeah, it's an interesting, some of her books are really great. So what is next for GSLV? is like, What is the vision is that plant based eating will be the norm section?


Matt Clayton

Well, you know, and I think that, so, it's interesting to kind of take off on that for a minute. So we get a lot of people who want to who have things that would kind of naturally fit into a more traditional vegan restaurant sort of space. And for those who have not been to the j cell base, we kind of I would say, aren't exactly a traditional vegan restaurant.


Carly Puch

Can you say a little bit more about that?


Matt Clayton

Yeah. I can. Well, obviously, nobody's we have not opened our dining room since last March. So we won't until I feel like this COVID is under better control, which I would define as air Average Daily cases and stages under 200 per day, since we're somewhere around 3000. Yeah, doesn't seem like that's going to happen anytime soon. And I know that the governor opened up the dining rooms again, which is probably a mistake. But, you know, whatever, we're not opening hours until I feel like it's safe for my employees to be in close contact with people who don't wear masks. Right? It'll be a while anyway. Yeah. The space itself, I think is, was really designed to be about as mainstream as it could be. It's fairly Spartan. We definitely do not have TVs and I've never had TVs and never will. And, and it's, you know, kind of natural wood and, but really pretty simple, pretty simple color scheme, really kind of just aiming to be a light, welcoming, friendly space. The menu itself is primarily comfort food favorites, that people who are not vegan can or not plant based can enjoy. I think just as well as people who are,


Carly Puch

that's my favorite part is bringing people who aren't based or vegan and being like, try this and then try this.


Matt Clayton

That was actually that I mean, that was really our what we would, that's what we were shooting for, we're not shooting for the place where if you're plant based you go to, to have, you know, your bootable, right. Because there are places where you can do that. Well, we wanted was the place where when you're plant based or vegan, and you go with your friends, the you're not the person to pick, like the one find the one thing on the menu, but they do, but they can, they can find something that at least sounds intriguing, or it looks interesting. And hopefully, is a close enough match to what they're expecting that they're delighted. Right? And so trying to get that light bulb moment for non plant based people is like, oh, maybe this is a possibility.


Carly Puch

Right? Oh, this is pretty good.


Matt Clayton

Hey, I could do this. You know, that's mean, that's how you get more trouble. Absolutely. And while I would love for there to be a whole food plant base, you know, sit down, lovely, fancy dinner place, until there's more plant based eaters, you're not going to have that, right? It's not sustainable as a business. But if you tripled the number of people who are plant based or who eat plants regularly, then that becomes a possibility. So anyway, so that's really what our goal is. We get so we have a lot of people who, who might have things that would fit into that more traditional vegan place, you know, more anyway, and they want to use an example that we recently had somebody who makes who's a juicer, okay, big, fancy juices, and they're really good. And she wanted to sell those through JSL B's, we said, we'll try but they're not gonna sell. That's not That's not our clientele. Right. And so we carried on for a couple of weeks and sold like three, and we abandon that project. And then right at about the same time, a group that makes waffles and is started making vegan waffles and make cookies and has vegan cookies wanting to sell vegan cookies were like, Yeah, our people buy that for