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Friday, March 03, 2017

Checking in with Julia & Vanna

Written by  Sage Piper
Julia and Vanna Belton Julia and Vanna Belton

Flavor at Baltimore Center Stage debuts with theatre’s grand reopening

When Baltimore OUTLoud profiled Julia and Vanna Belton in October 2015, they had just renovated and opened Flavor Restaurant, Bar & Lounge on Centre Street. Their story was pretty damn epic: married in 2014, they met two years after Vanna had almost completely lost her sight in a week’s time and had come to terms with life as a visually impaired person. The couple, both with backgrounds in the restaurant business, hit it off right away and began their personal and professional relationship, vowing to one day open a restaurant/bar in Baltimore where the LGBT community would thrive and feel safe. They were also determined to fight Vanna’s condition and seek a cure.

Fast forward to March 2014: After searching the world for a possible answer/cure for Vanna’s lost sight (including a trek to India) the couple found a doctor in Florida who was conducting trials using adult stem cell therapy. Vanna joined the study and became the 57th patient to be treated in the U.S., in a procedure which involved extracting her bone marrow and then injecting her own cells into her eyes and waiting for months for the cells to regenerate. The results have been tremendous: after an additional second procedure, Vanna now has 20/20 vision in one eye and 20/70 in the other. Her view of the world is back.

Along the way, Vanna has become an unofficial spokesperson and liaison for stem cell patients from all over the country, people who are navigating the journey to treatment for advanced or sudden eye disorders. She is often asked to speak to groups or to offer written testimony for possible medical trials. She spent a full week in Washinton, D.C., meeting with both senators and congress members and watching her input eventually translate into the 21st Century Cures Act, which will provide federal funding for biomedical research including adult stem cell trials. And, Vanna beams, “The bill was one of last President Obama signed into law.”

Meanwhile, Flavor’s journey has been anything but smooth. After enthusiastic opening reviews, the Beltons received a call last year from the City informing them that their block of Centre Street was set to be closed indefinitely for electricty grid work. “Indefinitely” turned out to be months, from April through September 2016. At the same time, Flavor lost the steady stream of pre-theatre Baltimore Center Stage customers which had filled its tables that first fall, as the theatre closed for more than a year’s renovation work. Vanna and Julia describe this double whammy hit as “crippling.” They persevered, struggling through months of gritting their teeth and trying to be patient. They built up their connections to the locals and to neighborhood groups and associations and booked private parties. They held special weekend nights in the Attic upstairs – theme parties, Queer-Aoke, and dance parties which kept the ball rolling.

Before Baltimore Center Stage’s hiatus, friends had gifted Julia and Vanna with tickets to see The Secret Garden, and they took a rare night off to attend. Walking around during intermission, Julia gushed, “I love it here ... I want to see our food here one day.” Months later, as the renovations progressed, the theater sent out a bid for area restaurants to become their preshow restaurant vendor. The Beltons jumped in, submitting a 26-page plan in April. Chosen as finalists, Vanna and Julia did their homework, researching the upcoming three shows and customizing a creative nine-course tasting for the judges. They presented French cuisine for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, traditional Chinese for White Snake, and southern American soul food for Jazz. The Baltimore Center Stage board spent the afternoon at Flavor and obviously loved what they saw and tasted – weeks later, Julia and Vanna learned that Flavor had been chosen and will provide pre-theatre lunch or dinner for eight plays a week, both at the seated restaurant upstairs and the bar downstairs. They have hired five additional staff members, and Julia will be the executive chef overseeing both locations.

In the flurry of all this activity I caught up with Julia and Vanna, who were reflective about what they have already accomplished at Flavor and the challenges they have overcome. “What I love is the diversity of our crowd,” says Julia. “It really runs the gamut – in terms of age, color, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and creed; it’s a melting pot, and looks like every color of the rainbow.” The second and fourth Fridays feature Queer-Aoke events, and the diversity produces an energy that “just jives” the Beltons say – everyone hugging each other, singing and dancing away. It is not uncommon to have the crowd from an early event (most recently, a lesbian drumming circle meetup) funnel downstairs afterwards to eat and blend in with hipsters from the neighborhood, downtown corporate executives, and suburbanites in for a night on the town. Vanna smiles and adds that “the word has gotten out among the NFB (National Federation of the Blind) community; Flavor has menus in Braille, and many nights you will see white canes all over the dining room.” They boast a full scale catering operation, and for the second year in a row, Flavor will be the offical afterparty for Baltimore Pride – once again hosting a block party outside with a huge tent in the middle of the street. Their biggest joy, the Beltons agree, is “forming relationships with all different kinds of people.” Through it all, Julia and Vanna have kept their energy and spirit intact, admitting that “we get thrown a lot of curve balls that other people just do not have to deal with.” Overcoming these obstacles has made them only more determined and optimistic about the road ahead. For the Beltons and for Flavor, the future looks mighty bright, indeed.

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