The founders of Detroit Vegan Soul marshal a revival

Detroit Vegan Soul co-owner and chef Erika Boyd discussing the many changes afoot for the Grandmont Rosedale restaurant following a three-month hiatus to recharge and reflect on the eatery’s impact on the local vegan dining scene. (BridgeDetroit/Tostada photo by Gabriel Guzmán)

Perched on a humble strip of Grand River, a pristine vegan oasis is humming once again. 

Detroit Vegan Soul reopened its Grandmont Rosedale location for online and pick-up orders on April 1, rising from a three-month hiatus. Staffing woes had shuttered its flagship, brick-and-mortar spot on Agnes Street in historic West Village in December.

“I’m very excited because this is a fresh start,” said chef and co-owner Erika Boyd.

The restaurant’s revival comes as some metro Detroit vegan spots — which use no animal-based ingredients — have shuttered in recent months.

Nosh Pit in Royal Oak has closed. So has the Street Beet pop-up in the city’s Midtown neighborhood. Shimmy Shack in Plymouth now solely operates a food truck after recently shutting down its storefront. Some of the owners lamented their losses and shared heartfelt goodbyes and gratitude on social media.

For more than a decade, Detroit Vegan Soul has dazzled the taste buds of Detroiters with the mystique of the familiar: plant-based remixes of soul food classics, like oyster mushroom po’boy sandwiches, okra stew bowls, house-made lavender lemonade.

Loyal customers and fellow food entrepreneurs alike champion the plant-based eatery’s return, as well as their survival. They credit the owners for helping boost the popularity of veganism in a city where chronic health problems persist and consistent access to nutritious foods in some neighborhoods has vanished.

Time -off granted Boyd and co-owner Kirsten Ussery the luxury of rest and reflection — about the legacy they left behind on Agnes Street and the future they hope to shape.

“It was probably unique in the restaurant industry for two young Black women to open something to the extent that we did,” Ussery said. “It was kind of uncharted territory.”

Beginnings and a mission to ‘entice the carnivore’

In 2010, Ussery and Boyd committed to vegan eating after the chef’s father died of cancer. Boyd began reinterpreting comfort foods using plant-based ingredients and serving those dishes to family and friends. Some glowing meal reviews spread by word of mouth.

They wanted to help Detroiters explore the world of plant-based flavors without fear or hesitation.

“Our objective was to entice the carnivore,” Boyd said. “Texture and flavor can basically change something that seems alien.”

Interestingly enough, most of Detroit Vegan Soul’s customers are meat-eaters in addition to the plant-based faithful, Boyd said.

Buoyed by the early buzz, the owners started Detroit Vegan Soul as a meal delivery and catering business. Their blossoming entrepreneurial spirits inspired Ussery and Boyd to open their flagship cafe on Agnes Street in 2013.

And the duo complement each other well. Boyd, the chef, is the public-facing flavor architect, crafting and developing recipes, while Ussery labors behind-the-scenes as the general manager, overseeing business operations.

Together, they hoped to enliven a dead street, once heralded as a lively commercial corridor generation before.

So they took a chance.

Along the way, Boyd and Ussery were peppered with questions about the restaurant’s viability as well as the desire to establish roots in West Village, known more for its handsome single and multi-family homes, less so as a foodie destination.

Would they be able to get customers? Shouldn’t they move downtown?

“We made an intentional choice to locate there,” Ussery said. “…to bring more attention to that neighborhood.”

So they bootstrapped the restaurant by pooling together their own money and winning a small business grant.

Traditional financing, like bank loans or lines of credit, was out of reach for Boyd and Ussery, two Black women, a challenge reflecting how many of Detroit’s Black small business owners in Detroit and beyond often struggle to access capital to jumpstart or even keep their businesses alive.

“If you don’t have family and friends with a lot of money or you don’t have that network to raise large amounts of money, you’re often using your own resources, your 401(k), your savings,” Ussery said.

But that didn’t stop the founders’ healthy eating mission.

Boyd and Ussery opened a second outpost featuring their signature soul food- inspired vegan cuisine on Grand River in 2017. The opening stirred the appetites of residents craving meals that weren’t fast food. 

“They just really became a part of the community, a really important part,” said Sherita Smith, the former executive director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, an organization focused on economic revitalization across the neighborhood.

“The neighbors really loved having them there,” she said.

A dream deferred

Year after year, Boyd and Ussery hustled inside both kitchens, feeding their neighbors, earning a living, building wealth for themselves.

Then the pandemic wreaked havoc on Black-owned businesses pretty much everywhere.

Financial experts estimated about 41 percent of Black-owned businesses shut down nationally between February and April 2020, according to a report published in August 2020 by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The shock of such widespread closures revealed major coverage gaps in federal relief efforts designed to help protect businesses, like the Paycheck Protection Program. These loans reached only 20 percent of eligible businesses in states with the highest densities of Black-owned businesses, according to the report.

When COVID-19 infections spiraled and forced lockdowns, weaker banking relationships, and depleted cash flows put Black business owners at a significant disadvantage.

Even as indoor dining restrictions faded last year, Boyd and Ussery got swept away by a whirlwind of stresses.

Suppliers kept running out of key ingredients, like tofu. Cooks weren’t willing to work full-time at the Agnes Street location.

So a painful sacrifice became the best financial decision for the owners. The flagship location permanently closed on Dec. 31.

It was hard for them to walk away.

“We tried to hold on to it for as long as we could,” Ussery said. “It’s sad for us because that’s where the dream was born.”

Together, they had wrapped their lives around a mission dedicated to the healing power of healthy eating. The world kept spinning. The work-related strife kept growing.

“We felt pressure to just keep going, going, going,” Ussery said. “It was definitely taking its toll on us.”

“Being on this constantly moving treadmill took time away from the creative process,” Boyd added.

So taking a break took courage.

Without pressures or distractions, they could map out the future of Detroit Vegan Soul. Boyd also got reacquainted with her inner artist. After some trial and error, she developed a new “seitan chickun” dish.

“In all of these years that we’ve been open, we never really took any significant time off,” Ussery said. “I’ve learned that it’s okay to do that. Sometimes, as a business owner, you need to do that.”

The rise of vegan dining in Detroit and beyond

Boyd and Ussery have long evangelized the gospel of veganism — a practice that forgoes the use of animal products.

The reasons why people switch to a plant-based lifestyle are not only related to health but also environmental and ethical reasons. Those concerned with the impact of their carbon footprints do not want to eat foods produced by factory farm systems — often guilty of contaminating the air and the water. They also do not want to eat animals who’ve suffered exploitation and cruelty.

Detroit Vegan Soul serves dishes that are healthy and cruelty-free, made with fresh, mostly organic and plant-based ingredients. 

In fact, vegan dining across America is on the rise.

In recent years, the vegan food market has experienced rapid growth. A trade association reported U.S. retail sales for plant-based products increased by 11 percent in 2019.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) described Detroit as an “oasis of vegan cuisine,” and named it one of their top 10 vegan-friendly cities in the U.S. in 2018.

“It’s time. There needs to be a light shined on plant-based eating,” said Velonda Anderson, a  nutritionist, food entrepreneur, and retired public health professional.

Anderson said eating vegan foods could help improve health outcomes for many Detroiters, who’ve long battled high rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. In 2018, a University of Michigan survey showed Detroiters want more access to healthy foods.

Detroit Vegan Soul, along with a growing number of nonprofits, restaurants and independent markets, are leading the charge, offering fresh fruits, vegetables, and attitudes.

They hope to feed families battling hunger and erase the city’s debatable reputation as a “food desert.”

Restaurants like Detroit Vegan Soul also provide inclusive spaces for meat lovers, vegetarians, and vegans alike, Anderson said. And adopting a well-planned vegan diet can help heal the heart, the body, and the planet.

A taste of childhood

The restaurant’s allure as a plant-based comfort food destination grew, making believers out of meat-eaters and luring diners from beyond the borders of Detroit.

During their early pop-up days, Boyd remembered one patron ate their plant-based pepper steak, then paused, realizing he’d eaten a meatless dish. He was dumbfounded by the audacity of flavor.

“You could see the light bulb go off,” Boyd said. 

Because of these revelations, some diners began cooking vegan dishes for their own family tables.

For some customers, Detroit Vegan Soul’s cuisine had defied cliches of vegan eating. A plant-based meal could be hearty and rich.

A.J. Bayi, who lives in Southfield, is lactose intolerant and her medications prevent her from eating certain fried foods. So she often eats vegan but grumbles over the typical menu items she sees.

To her, these dishes lack imagination.

“The go-to thing for vegans, sometimes, or even vegetarians, is just ‘go get a veggie burger with a side of fries’,” Bayi said. She also got tired of spring mix salads.  “I don’t want a burger and fries. I want food, like, a whole plate of actual food.”

She found those filling dishes, like the mac and cheese and cornbread, at Detroit Vegan Soul and drove to the eatery at least twice a month before the hiatus.

“They are above and beyond all these little, newfangled competitors out there,” Bayi said.

Growing up in Detroit, Malik Yakini was raised on soul food. The educator and food activist then became a vegan in 1981.

Like Bayi, he was enticed by Detroit Vegan Soul’s scrumptious plant-based flavors.

Yakini made regular trips to the Grand River location, which isn’t too far from where he works, a sprawling, seven-acre organic farm overflowing with community gardens.

The meals gave him a taste of childhood.

“It was really a joy for me,” he said.

‘I’m proud of the legacy we left behind’

Before reopening, a reimagining of the plant-based eatery was underway.

Detroit Vegan Soul is now offering a meal subscription service for those wishing to buy a bulk of dinners each week. They’re also selling whole cakes, which can be shipped nationwide. Customers can pick up their plant-based meals or order food delivery through the restaurant’s website. 

Indoor dining is not yet available, but Boyd and Ussery hope to offer diners a reservation-only, indoor brunch experience by June if they have enough staff. They will also begin using a new order and pay system.

Guests, upon their return, can expect a little breathing room when they munch on their meals. The earth-toned dining space, soaked in warm, interior lights, has downsized to roughly 20 seats. The owners fortified their security operations, installing surveillance cameras across the parking lot. The kitchen has also gotten a facelift, outfitted with a new dishwashing machine and flat top grill. And most meat substitutes will now be made in-house.

The makeover smoothes out some wrinkles in the workflow, enabling Boyd to glide from station to station while she cooks or hands off pick-up orders to customers or delivery drivers.

“One person could do the whole operation in the kitchen with ease,” the chef said.  Right now, Boyd, along with a cashier, is the only in-house employee.

The ongoing labor shortage has rippled across industries and is an obstacle Boyd and Ussery must figure out a way to overcome. They’re actively hiring dishwashers and kitchen prep workers, people they hope to train as cooks one day.

Because of costlier ingredients and staffing deficits, they’ve had to increase their meal prices so the business can survive.

Thankfully enough, the pandemic didn’t kill their ambitions.

“I don’t think either one of us ever completely lost our passion,” Ussery said. “But it’s certainly rejuvenated.” 

As a new chapter unfolds on that humble strip of Grand River, Boyd and Ussery rescued a few remnants from the last location: photo collages showcasing Detroit street signs now hang near the entryway. They’re hoping to auction off some of these art pieces too.

Saving these photos is a nod to the present and the past.

Because all things, Ussery reflected, have a lifespan.

The truth is, the owners probably would have shut down the Agnes Street business anyway. They were leasing the location. The pandemic just sped up the move towards closure by a couple of years.

But the sweat equity poured into a place devoted to the healing power of healthy eating across the city didn’t go to waste.

They built a following of customers who’ll once again feast on their flavorful dishes in a different corner of Detroit. They helped stir a dormant street back to life.

“I am proud of the legacy we left behind,” Boyd said. “It will be lasting.”

The building on Grand River, which Boyd and Ussery now own, is one of the last surviving parts of a dream born almost 10 years ago.

The founders of Detroit Vegan Soul still cling to what’s possible: a return to normal sales, an expansion of their service days as well as their staff.

A dream fully restored.

Detroit Vegan Soul is located at 19614 Grand River Ave. in Detroit. The restaurant is open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. for pick up and online orders. Starting May 1, the restaurant will offer brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m for pick and online orders. For the latest updates, follow Detroit Vegan Soul’s Instagram @detvegansoul.

Eleanore Catolico

Author: Eleanore Catolico

Eleanore Catolico is a freelance journalist based in Detroit who’s covered education, the environment, and the criminal justice system. Follow her on Twitter @e_catolico.

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