Black-owned vegan restaurants awaken appetite for plant-based diet

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

For Terry Sargent, who owns Grass VBQ Joint in Atlanta’s West End, veganism in the Black community is “new, but not new.”

In 2020, he opened Atlanta’s only vegan barbecue spot, serving up Nashville Hot Chick’n and oyster mushroom po’boys. And his restaurant has done more than just serve good food.

“I honestly don’t do this for vegans because vegans know what this is,” said Sargent, who went vegan predominantly due to weight concerns. “I try to get (non-vegans) to understand that vegan food can be just as equally tasty as your non-vegan foods.”

ExploreMore than 25 vegan restaurants to try in metro Atlanta

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Across Atlanta, there are dozens of Black-owned vegan restaurants, food trucks and markets revolutionizing plant-based cooking. While Soul Vegetarian dates to 1979, others like Tassili’s Raw Reality and Slutty Vegan opened in the past few years, blending history with modern cooking.

“Because we generationally and culturally have been used to being in the kitchen, now we’re finding that because of veganism, we’re being creative, and we want people to get a feel for these creations,” said CrystalShae, founder of Gregory’s Atlanta Vegan Breakfast in Roswell.

ExploreMore than 300 Black-owned metro Atlanta restaurants, food businesses

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Owned by Adaya Nijay and Maeko Reale, Gregory’s serves up sausage, egg and cheese and Slap Ya Mama Chik’n Biscuits. Since April 2021, the restaurant has provided the community with family-style “food with love” while using social media to appeal to customers including TV host Steve Harvey. Reale said social media has also served as a tool for education.

“We are starting to see and notice and get more information about startling statistics as it relates to health, sickness and disease of African American culture,” said Reale.

ExploreRECIPES: Celebrate Fourth of July with colorful plant-based menu

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Starting in a pandemic

Many Black-owned vegan restaurants in Atlanta opened during the pandemic, when many in the Black community became more intentional about adopting healthier diets in response to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, about a third of people of color in America reported cutting down on meat.

“Being in quarantine and a pandemic gave us a lot of time to actually get to know ourselves, more time to get to know what we like, to feel more,” said Deja Francis, who owns Planted Soul in Berkeley Park.

For her culturally diverse menu, the Pittsburgh native created vegan versions of meals she ate with her grandparents, like fried vegan chicken with macaroni and cheese, collard greens and candied yams. She realized veganism was freeing as a chef following her hypothyroidism diagnosis.

“It was our goal to reshape some of the fundamental values of the way people eat, even in the healthier aspect, by showing you that you can still love the food you eat, still eat those comfort foods,” Francis said.

The health benefits of veganism

Francis noted the 2017 film “What the Health” further encouraged her to go vegan. According to Atlanta-based plant-based nutritionist and pharmacist Dr. Bobby Price, the movie inspired many people to be more health conscious. The pandemic similarly motivated people to take holistic, plant-based approaches to their health, said Price, who posts science and health tips for his 136,000 Instagram followers.

ExplorePlant the seeds of a lifestyle change with these vegan recipes

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Price, who lost his grandparents to chronic illnesses, went vegan after his diagnosis with high blood pressure. He launched herbal detox programs to help people reclaim their health.

In his book “Vegetation Over Medication,” Price noted that the standard American diet is 60-70% processed food and 20-30% meat, eggs and dairy. Price said that diets “have got it all backwards in terms of what really provides health.”

“A lot of people are under the assumption that we can only get our protein from animal-based sources, but everything that they say that we have to get from meat, all of those nutritional things we can actually get from plants,” Price said.

Giving back to the community

For Issa Prescott, who opened fine dining vegan restaurant Life Bistro in Sylvan Hills, serving soul- and Caribbean-inspired dishes like creamy pesto fettucine and portobello rasta pasta is about giving back. Prescott described his community as a food desert with few healthy options, and said that his vegan restaurant, alongside others in Atlanta, has helped diners think differently about food.

ExploreHealthy holidays to you with these easy plant-based recipes

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Prescott also noted that the success of Black-owned businesses in Atlanta has had a domino effect. “When you see other Black businesses doing well, it inspires you to want to do the same, so I think there are a lot of people who’ve just been inspired and motivated by other people.”

This collaborative spirit was part of what propelled Tan Bowers to create Veganish ATL, Atlanta’s only vegan and vegetarian food truck park. After Bowers became vegan, she rebranded and gave healthier food trucks a space to sell food in Jonesboro while giving people an experience.

“Tradition is the only thing that some people are holding on to, so they’re doing it that way because it’s been done that way, but the exposure to something new, everybody deserves to have that,” she said.

ExploreWhere to find vegan pizza in metro Atlanta

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

According to Bowers, food trucks are driving significant change among diets in Atlanta’s Black community. GAS Food Truck in Decatur, run by Kelli Marshall and Jef Fleming who have been vegan for six years, gained traction for its stoner theme, reflected in dishes like How High chopped cheese and Half Baked loaded fries.

“People already eat hoagies and burgers and nachos and shrimp, so I had to find a way to make a vegan version of that to keep people interested,” Marshall said.

Besides creative menus, marketing is also playing a part in attracting people to veganism. Plant Based Drippin, a lifestyle brand founded by hip-hop artist PDB Grey, sells apparel and accessories with health-minded messaging that posits veganism as cool. The brand has reached thousands across social media and festivals, spreading awareness about the history and benefits of veganism especially in underserved communities.

“We’ve been tapped into nature, we’ve been tapped into the earth,” he said. “I think down here we are starting to see the actual benefits of it.”

ExploreThe ultimate guide to pizza in Atlanta

Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.