Walking near the heart of campus puts visitors, students, faculty and staff alike near plenty of great places to eat, hang out, and have a good time. Tucked away on the corner of Oregon and St. Mathews sits Red Herring, a restaurant that has a long history on the University of Illinois campus. The building itself is at least one hundred years old, and was originally a Unitarian Universalist church. Today it hosts a vegan/vegetarian restaurant and an active community center.
Emmett Silver, the financial manager of Red Herring, has been in his position for three years. The Red Herring is a non-profit project under the Channing-Murray Foundation. He knows quite a bit of history about the Channing-Murray Foundation, the owners of the building, and the restaurant history of Red Herring. The whole project started fifty years ago when Unitarian Christians and Universalist Christians came together to become the Unitarian Universalists and left Christianity. They started their church in the Channing-Murray building, then Red Herring sprang up in the basement, and they opened their doors in 1967.
The name has been accused of being communist, especially after the second Red Scare in the 1950’s, but Emmett points out that it’s a “literary term” meaning “a distraction from the pertinent line of argument.” It comes from the McCarthy era when 'red herring' was used to indicate that something was Communist when it really was not. There is an older dictionary definition, where the term also refers to fare for those too poor to afford more expensive food. The Red Herring began as as a coffee house and the owners were into peace activism in the 1960’s. They also stood for what Emmett termed “food justice,” which is a term focused on the ethical consumption of food and not consuming animals. Red Herring also provided a meat-less alternative before vegetarian and vegan cafés became popular in Champaign.
The Red Herring is also part of a larger Channing-Murray Foundation initiative to be engaged in the activities of the community. One such activity is the Tagore festival: a yearly festival held at the Foundation celebrating the Pakistani poet Tagore. Red Herring provides the food, Channing-Murray provides the space, and the community provides the audience. The Red Herring is also very connected to their employees, bringing people together to work in an energetic, safe space. Their head chef, Holly Curia, has been there for three years and, according to Emmett, is “the glue that holds us together.” Their coffeehouse is open to all; Emmett says this work is “a labor of love, cultivating open mindedness, acceptance, and respect.”