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Soul food restaurants spice up Oakland’s vegan culinary landscape

on October 2, 2020

Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway founded The Vegan Hood Chefs in 2017 to blend healthy, plant-based food with the rich, flavorful seasoning of soul food. Johnson and Calloway are among a host of new vegan soul restaurant owners catering to residents with plant-based diets, which have been growing in popularity among Millennials and Gen Z. 

Both Johnson and Calloway emphasize the importance of using their platform to inform people about health issues. A recent study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that about 85% of all health care spending in the U.S. goes toward management of diet-related chronic diseases. Many proponents of plant-based diets cite the health benefits of eliminating meat and other animal products. 

Vegan soul restaurant owners and chefs are changing the misconception that plant-based food is limiting. In Oakland, restaurants like Souley Vegan, Vegan Mob and Hella Nuts offer staple dishes including New Orleans okra gumbo, potato salad and meatballs made with ground walnuts.

Chefs Mieko Scott and Kamari Quiñones, a mother-daughter team that owns Oakland-based eatery Hella Nuts, partner with local farms, obtaining fresh ingredients to create savory vegan dishes like their “hella loaded nachos.”

“You can really take vegetables to another level. You don’t have to be boring with vegan,” Quiñones said. 

Customers can order vegan ribs, collards and potato salad from Hella Nuts. Photo courtesy Hella Nuts.

Johnson and Calloway, best friends since age 14, created The Vegan Hood Chefs to showcase their new recipes on social media. 

Their Instagram page is a smorgasbord of colorful images — vivid pictures of the foods reminiscent of traditional soul food, but without the meat. Some of the items include vegan lobster mac, vegan chicken and waffles and black-eyed pea salad — foods traditionally prepared with meat in African American cooking. 

Breezy Powell, a regular customer from Richmond, says The Vegan Hood Chefs’ food reminds her of her family’s cooking. 

“It’s very well-seasoned and the textures are nice,” Powell said. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Many of their customers are not vegan, so Johnson and Calloway understand the importance of getting the flavors right. 

“Their food is colorful, tasty and delicious,” said Carlos Alvarado, a non-vegan customer. His favorite menu items are the po’ boys and the fried mac-n-cheese balls. Alvarado has become somewhat of an ambassador for Johnson and Calloway, even showing up to help with set-up and breakdown at their events. “If you know me, you know The Vegan Hood Chefs,” Alvarado said. 

Connecting with customers was much easier prior to the pandemic. Johnson and Calloway relied on in-person events, like food demonstrations and catering, to generate revenue. According to the California Office of Small Businesses, 85% of small business owners have had to change their online strategy since the pandemic began. 

Now Johnson and Calloway whip up recipes while streaming live on Instagram. They also feature interviews with health experts and other vegans to educate people about plant-based eating. 

Darren Preston, owner of Oakland-based vegan restaurant Malibu’s Burgers, said Instagram has been vital for his restaurant. 

“Instagram is our bread and butter. That’s where we flourish,” Preston said.

Since Preston opened Malibu Burgers in 2019, he has become a bit of a local celebrity. One customer approached Preston in a grocery store and checked his cart to make sure he wasn’t buying meat.

Malibu’s Burgers’ signature burger is entirely plant-based. Photo courtesy Malibu Burgers.

Preston’s recipes are influenced by his grandmothers, who he said could “make magic out of nothing.” The restaurant’s namesake and most popular item, the Malibu burger, is a product of his African American and Afro-Puerto Rican heritage.

“I wanted to make the food I missed as a vegan…the food that will make non-vegans say, ‘Oh wow,’” Preston said. 

Feature photo courtesy The Vegan Hood Chefs.

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