In the old brick church at Montgomery and Washington, Rachel and Boris Vrbeta share the great loves of their lives: God, healthful food and finely tailored clothes.
In the building’s basement, Boris Vrbeta runs the five-year-old Eat Rite vegetarian restaurant. In the foyer, Rachel Vrbeta runs the Look Rite boutique, which features her hand-sewn wedding gowns and formal dresses.
The Vrbetas also have restored the church sanctuary - which most recently was used as a night club for teenagers - as a chapel for Seventh Day Adventist sabbath services. The sanctuary also will be used as a wedding chapel.
“The restaurant is our ministry to the community,” Rachel Vrbeta said. “For us money is not the bottom line. Our motive is to educate people how to live better.”
Through the restaurant, the couple teach that a strict vegetarian diet is more than just rabbit food. Stews and soups are richly flavored with herbs; desserts are sweetened with maple syrup.
They tell anyone who will listen that healthy eating can help prevent diseases, even the common cold. Rachel Vrbeta, who has lived her whole life as a vegetarian, teaches the principles of cooking without meat, sugar and milk during free classes.
Sales at the bridal boutique support both the restaurant and the chapel - although the couple prefer to say that God is providing for their needs.
The Yugoslavian-born couple bought the church building at N2303 Washington in November. Built in 1919, it originally was home to the Church of Christ. In the 1970s, it became a meeting hall known as the Celtic Hall. More recently, it was home to a theater group and the Piccadilly Palare night club.
“I used to drive by here every day and think wouldn’t that be a nice place for us,” Rachel Vrbeta said.
“But we didn’t have the money and it wasn’t for sale. I didn’t say anything, but it turned out Boris was driving by here thinking the same thing.”
When the opportunity to buy the church presented itself, the Vrbetas jumped.
Rachel Vrbeta was tired of driving back and forth between Eat Rite, formerly located downtown, and Look Rite, which was near NorthTown. The couple also wanted to spend more time together.
The church building’s neighbors, who complained about late-night noise and problems with drinking and vandalism when Piccadilly Palare was open, breathed a sigh of relief when the Vrbetas moved in.
Next-door neighbor Carla James brought flowers to the Vrbetas on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“You don’t meet people like this very often,” she said.
The Vrbetas describe their own meeting 37 years ago as nothing short of miraculous.
Rachel Vrbeta was working as a dressmaker in Yugoslavia. Boris Vrbetas was already in the United States.
The daughter of a tailor, who early in the century made clothes for the King of Serbia, she learned to design dresses when she was 7 years old. She learned to work from measurements rather than relying on patterns. The dresses come out of her imagination as she cuts the fabric.
Her cousin was Boris Vrbeta’s best friend in Yugoslavia. Her letter to him - meant to encourage him in his faith - came as he was on his knees praying for a Christian wife.
The pair decided they would get together if God would provide a way for Rachel Vrbeta to leave Yugoslavia. Within two years she was on her way.
Now at Look Rite, Rachel Vrbeta sews through the afternoon. Many of her gowns have been worn in the Mrs. Washington and Miss Washington pageants.
Hundreds of dresses hang in corners and back rooms of the building. Her sewing room is behind the chapel altar. When the chapel is not in use she opens doors revealing a sewing room filled with puffy white gowns.
“Dress making is second nature to me,” she said. “Like eating bread.”
Eat Rite and Look Rite are open from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Saturday. On Sunday, Eat Rite offers a vegetarian brunch.