When you drive through the gates at 711 E. Blacklidge Drive, it's as if you have entered a world far removed from Tucson.
Large trees sway in the breeze. The sound of a macaw echoes in the air, and a feeling of peacefulness prevails. No, you haven't been magically transported to an exotic locale; you're at Govinda's Natural Foods Buffet--a unique vegetarian restaurant. What makes Govinda's unique is its combination of scenic grounds, specialty foods and spiritual outlook.
Govinda's grounds are the vision of Charles Cooksey. He and his wife, Sharon--both practicing Hare Krishnas--bought the property in 1987.
"It certainly didn't look like this," explains Sharon. "It was run down, and some of the buildings were dilapidated. I thought, "What in the world are we going to do with this?' But my husband is a visionary. He said, "We'll have a fountain, birds and a restaurant.'"
As you take a stroll through the grounds, it's obvious that Charles' vision has come true. Outside, there are two aviaries with macaws, doves and peacocks. There's also a fountain with cascading water and a koi pond. Inside, there's a temple room, video lounge and library, boutique, juice bar and restaurant.
The restaurant opened in August 1992. While presented buffet-style, the type and preparation of Govinda's food is vastly different from other area buffets.
"We strive to get as much organic food as we can," says Sharon. "At least 50 percent of the produce served is organic." Food is cooked in stainless steel pots with purified water and only raw and unrefined sugars, sea salt and unprocessed flour. The all-you-can-eat buffet menu changes daily and includes salad, breads, rice, soups, pasta, vegetables, entrées like tamale pie and vegetarian lasagna, desserts and beverages.
"On Tuesday, it's Indian night--kind of a healthy but not-too-spicy Indian food," explains Sharon. "On Wednesday, we call it mid-week relief. We give everyone $2 off on lunch and dinner. Thursday is vegan day. And we offer free meals on your birthday. We try to do as many nice things as we can for the community."
While all of that may sound distinctive, it's the preparation of food that stands alone in its comparison to other buffets.
"Part of our philosophy is that whatever the consciousness of the cook (is), then that goes into the food, and then you take on some of that consciousness," says Sharon. "So if someone is angry or upset, then that vibration enters into the food, and when people eat that, they subtly pick up on that energy. All of our cooks engage in morning meditation. Every day for at least three hours, they do chanting and meditate. So when they cook, their consciousness is pure and uplifting.
"You make spiritual advancement by eating the food. That's our understanding. Many people say, "Wow, there's something special about this food. What is it?' They feel it's very calming, and they feel good afterward. They appreciate the health aspects, but there's another element many people pick up on, which is really cool, I think."
And visitors to Govinda's have the opportunity to pick up spiritual advancement in other ways, too.
"Every Sunday, we have an open house and introduction of what we do," says Sharon. "We do a little singing, chanting, a philosophy talk and one of our ceremonies. And there's a $3 all-you-can-eat dinner afterward. It starts every Sunday at 5:30, and dinner is served at 7. We also do different things during the year. We had our fourth George Harrison memorial. And we try to do what's called Feed the World Day. On a day that we are normally closed, we cook and open the doors, and everyone can come and eat."
Sharon says she "likes to have people experience something a little bit different. ... Many people come with questions and need someone to talk to. We perhaps give them a perspective they haven't examined before."
But information is disbursed in an unobtrusive manner and differs from how things were done at the beginning of the Hare Krishna movement in America, back in the 1960s.
"In the earlier days, because of the world environment, we had a big flux of people in our movement," says Sharon. "They were very zealous and enthusiastic. One venue we had was the airports. That did a lot of good, and it did a lot of damage. Now we have management courses and seminars. But in those days, it was all gusto and enthusiasm. Not being sensitive to people's own culture and beliefs caused, in hindsight, people to think we were strange and pushy. But that (behavior on our part) stopped in the late '70s. Now, we might do something like put up a book table with a banner on it. People can come over to us if they are interested in these kinds of things."
While the method of communicating their beliefs and practices has changed, Sharon says the message is the same.
"We say don't forget about the soul, because that is who we really are. What we do spiritually goes into our spiritual bank account, and we carry that with us. To advance spiritually, you need to follow God's directions. We don't say you have to be Hare Krishna. If you want to follow Jesus, follow Jesus, or follow Buddha. But if you associate with God and people who try to follow God naturally, you will become godly.
"The first thing is to have the understanding that we are not the body. We are spirit/soul. ... Why is there all this fighting in the world? Because I don't like the way your body looks, or I don't like the way your body believes? We are all just covered up temporarily by different bodies. Someone may have a black body, red body or yellow body, but all of these things are just outward coverings. We are all parcels of God, and we are all spiritually the same. So if we can relate more on that platform instead of the differences, the world would be a much better place."
And with their beautiful grounds, organic food and spiritual philosophy, Charles and Sharon Cooksey say they strive to make Tucson a better place in their own way, and find enjoyment in the process.
"Our goal here is to create an atmosphere where people can come without any pressure," says Sharon. "Come into a non-threatening, non-judgmental atmosphere and have a nice, healthy meal, inquire about spirituality and make friends with the community. ... We come into contact with people from many, many walks of life. We have from the hippie to the mayor and everything in between. I am happy that we can cross that threshold and reach people."