Black vegans are carving their own identity
“It’s not just white hippies.”
Gigi Jones is talking about Kansas City’s vegan community—plant-based diners in a notorious Cowtown. The community’s growing fast, and the vegan restaurant scene is growing to meet them. And it’s Black restaurateurs and diners who are leading the charge.
Jones is one of several Black entrepreneurs to open a vegan restaurant or catering business in KC in the last couple of years. She works as a health and wellness coach—“stage name, ‘Gigi the Vegan’”—and opened her first restaurant, Gigi’s Vegan + Wellness Café, in Westport this July.
Jones has witnessed a surge of interest in plant-based eating recently. But the scene wasn’t always so rosy. When she first went vegan in 2015, she felt alone. “I was the elephant in the room,” she says. “I felt like within my community that I was the first vegan ever. I know I wasn’t, but I felt that way.”
Jones worked hard to promote plant-based eating locally, teaching workshops at health-food stores, and expanding her client base. But she knew Black diners needed a targeted approach. Last November, she started Midwest Soul VegFest, a vegan food festival focused on the Black community. More than 3,000 people attended. (COVID-19 put a damper on a repeat festival this year).
“I think the face and the culture [of veganism] is changing,” Jones says. “Right now, people are seeking better, healthier lifestyles, and I’m grateful to be a part of this movement—and it is a movement.”
The movement appears to be national as well as local. According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2016, Black Americans are almost three times as likely to identify as strict vegans or vegetarians than white Americans. Mainstream perceptions of veganism have been slow to adjust. Type “vegan” into any stock photo site, and you’re still likely to be greeted with variations on a theme of Thin White Woman Trying to Look Through a Cucumber.
For a long time, those perceptions guided local restaurant offerings. Sisters and business partners Arvelisha Woods and India Pernell were inspired to open Mattie’s Foods in part because they couldn’t find any restaurants that catered to them. Like Jones, the pair first went vegan in 2015.
“At the time, we had Füd and we had Café Gratitude,” says Woods. “The restaurant scene was like a desert. No one African-American was vegan that I knew, no one was talking about it. And when we went to Café Gratitude, I didn’t even really understand the menu. I was like what is that? There was nothing I can even pronounce.”
Woods says she understands the motives behind those menu choices now—but she still craved the comfort foods she’d enjoyed before she switched to a plant-based diet. She wanted mac and cheese. She wanted nachos.
“The real deal,” echoes Pernell. “I was tired of leaving hungry.”
The pair started making and selling jars of vegan queso at pop-ups and food festivals. Then they launched a successful food truck—Mattie’s Vegan Eats. This September, they updated the name to Mattie’s Foods and moved to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in east Brookside. The new menu features nachos, burritos, and brisket sandwiches. The restaurant’s motto is emblazoned in neat cursive on a bright mural wall: “Comfort food made smart.”
Dropping “vegan” from the restaurant’s name was intentional. “Although we are vegan, I don’t feel like we embody the vegan ‘brand’ or the vegan message,” says Woods. “Sometimes [vegans] can be very cruel, especially to newcomers. Whatever your journey is, whatever your start is, I am celebrating you. And sometimes the vegan community doesn’t do a lot of celebrating because we do a lot of condemning.”
“We’re not all mean,” Pernell adds, and both she and her sister laugh. “Listen. We are not all mean.”
Woods and Pernell aren’t alone in ditching the “vegan” label. The term has a history that doesn’t necessarily resonate with many Black diners. Although people around the world have been eating plant-based diets for centuries, it was white animal rights advocate Donald Watson who coined the word “vegan” and founded the Vegan Society in 1944.
Because of that history, it’s easy to conflate veganism in general with animal rights activists in particular. But doing so collapses the diverse concerns of vegan eaters, who don’t fall neatly into one ideological bloc. Some people eat vegan for climate and sustainability reasons, others for weight loss or health or religion.
None of the business owners I spoke to for this story referenced animal rights as their primary motive for going vegan. Although reliable survey data are scarce—and rarely capture details on race—anecdotal evidence suggests Black vegans are far more likely to cite health concerns as the main driver of their diet. Which invites the question: Why aren’t animal rights groups connecting with Black vegans in the same way?
Get on our list.
Want the straight dope on Kansas City news and events?
It may not help that some groups have coopted the rhetoric of anti-racist activism in clumsy ways—take the PETA-sponsored (and ultimately rejected) Super Bowl ad in which cartoon eagles and bears and mice take a somber Colin Kaepernick knee to a breathily hummed national anthem. Cries of “speciesism,” however well intentioned, can come off at best as tone-deaf—at worst, as blatantly dismissive of anti-Black racism and the ongoing struggle for human rights. And white-led animal rights organizations can’t seem to keep the tofu-egg off their face for long.
But the most likely explanation is a simpler one: Black Americans just have bigger fysh to fry. Jones, Woods, and Pernell all started eating vegan due to health concerns. So did Kimberly Vincent, the owner and chef of Topknotch Vegan Vittles. Vincent was inspired to start selling her plant-based riffs on soul food—Southern-fried jackfruit bites, “chicken” wings, fried “fysh” sandwiches—in 2018 after her own success curing digestive issues with a vegan diet.
“We have a lot of sick people,” Vincent says. “A lot of people are figuring out because we have a high rate of high blood pressure and diabetes, they can change the way that that runs in their family. Instead of being a statistic, they can change that.“
The statistics back her up. According to the CDC, Black Americans are far more likely to have hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease than white Americans. They have a higher mortality rate for most cancers, and they’re likely to die at a younger age than their white counterparts from all causes.
In the face of these disparate health outcomes, Black health-care consumers also receive disparate treatment. Several studies have documented that Black patients are less likely to receive major procedures and therapies even after controlling for insurance status, comorbidities, and the severity of their condition. They’re also systematically undertreated for pain. It’s no surprise that many are looking for answers outside of the traditional health-care system.
“They’re being a little more compassionate toward themselves and a little more aware now that we have control over what we put in our bodies,” says Pernell. “I think now it’s like ‘Oh, well let me just at least try it. Let me look into it.’”
“Black health matters,” says Jones. “When we look at our health, you know, not only do we not receive the same information from a physician the way that our [white] counterparts would, certain things, certain foods affect us more.”
In that vein, Black-owned vegan restaurants have offered a community-based answer to a community health crisis.
“In Black communities, there are as many dialysis centers as there are liquor stores,” says Woods. “There’s things that are not good for us being implanted in our areas. So let me use produce to make something better for my family. I think that’s why you’re seeing more vegan restaurants that are Black-owned popping up.”
Although Vincent is operating Topknotch Vegan Vittles as a “ghost kitchen” for now—preparing meals for curbside pickup—she’s likely to be another major player in the restaurant space soon. COVID-19 has disrupted some of her plans, but she says opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant is her ultimate goal.
“In my mind, I have to change the perception that people have of vegan food and show them, yes, it’s vegan, yes, it can be delicious, yes it can be good. Even though I serve soul food, I can say that it’s a healthy soul food. That’s how I feel that it can impact the Black community. That’s how it IS impacting the Black community, because it looks good, it tastes good, and they can relate to it.”
The proliferation and success of vegan restaurants in Kansas City suggests that that perception is indeed changing. Vincent notes that a large portion of her clientele—she estimates 40 percent—don’t identify as vegan. At least, they don’t identify as vegan yet. Some of them are interested in making healthier choices but not ready to commit to eating plant-based full time. Others are just attracted to the food. Vincent posts frequent photos of Topknotch dishes on her Facebook and Instagram accounts to show customers that vegan food isn’t just “grass and twigs.”
Woods and Pernell say they serve a lot of non-vegan customers at Mattie’s, too. And all of the entrepreneurs I spoke to say their customer base is diverse. It’s definitely not just white hippies.
“I think that people are waking up,” says Jones. “I think things have shifted. I believe that the African American community is starting to wake up and know that it’s time for a change.”
On twitter @lizcookkc