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Swizz Beets burgers, ‘Cajou’ ice cream: Black vegan eateries expand in Baltimore as interest in plant-based diets grows

Nicole Foster, left, co-owner of Cajou Creamery, which makes vegan ice cream, makes a delivery to customer Kimberly Summers of Owings Mills.
Nicole Foster, left, co-owner of Cajou Creamery, which makes vegan ice cream, makes a delivery to customer Kimberly Summers of Owings Mills. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

They’ve been popping up across Baltimore in the last few years: eateries that serve up dishes like sweet potato salad, broccoli burgers and even ice cream made from cashew milk. As polls find that Americans — and particularly people of color — eat less meat, local Black entrepreneurs have launched restaurants to cater to the growing demand for vegan food.

Within the past 18 months, at least two Black-owned vegan restaurants — Gangster Vegan Organics franchise in Cross Street Market and My Mama’s Vegan in Waverly — have opened in the city. Another, With Love Co: A Plant-Based Sip & Eat Joint, opened a year ago in Parkville.

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The decade-old, Black-owned city restaurant Land of Kush plans to open a second, larger location next year near Johns Hopkins Hospital, and its owners have long-term ambitions to franchise. The founders of Cajou Creamery, who create vegan ice cream, have been delivering pints to porches around the city and expect to open a retail space this fall on Howard Street.

While one in four Americans ate less meat in the past year, nonwhite people report having reduced the amount of meat in their diet at higher rates than white people, according to a recent Gallup poll. Experts say that the trend here and nationwide is driven by a combination of factors: Black Americans see it as a way to address generational health disparities such as diabetes and heart disease. In addition, Black celebrities are modeling and partnering with makers of meatless products — raising the profile of the trend.

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A vegan diet, the strictest form of vegetarianism, is completely plant-based. Adherents don’t eat any animal products at all, not even eggs or dairy products. Nearly two in five U.S. consumers are trying to add more plant-based foods into their diet, and six in 10 are interested in doing so, according to research from Mintel, a global market research company. Mintel found that the main drivers for the switch in diet are health, followed by ethical and environmental reasons.

“Baltimoreans are eating less meat, and it’s coming from increased awareness on many different fronts,” said Brenda Sanders, a local advocate and founder of Afro-Vegan Society, a national organization that helps people transition to a plant-based diet. She attributes the uptick in vegan eating to outreach work by various groups and people seeing how eating less meat has benefited family or friends.

“We [Black people] are going vegan for climate reasons too,” Sanders said, referring to studies that have shown reducing red meat and dairy consumption in many Western countries, whose diets are heavy in animal products, corresponded to considerable reductions in greenhouse gas footprints. “We’re figuring out ways to help each other and create a safer, healthier environment.”

Sanders became a vegan more than two decades ago and says her acne and sinus problems went away. “Never before did I really make the connection that those problems were linked to the food I was eating,” she said.

Jacquelyn Bey, owner of With Love Co: A Plant-Based Sip & Eat Joint, has found her customers becoming more interested in the vegan lifestyle because of documentaries. She cited recent films such as Game Changers and What the Health as contributing to the conversation about the link between plant-based eating and health.

“Most of my customer base are meat eaters. But they’re curious about the vegan lifestyle,” said Bey, who offers a range of smoothies, juices and customer favorites such as sweet potato salad. She found a home for her products at a small shop in Parkville in August 2019. “We make people feel at home because they’re eating foods they can trust. It’s like being in Grandma’s kitchen.”

Also last summer, Taneea Yarborough and her husband, James, opened Gangster Vegan Organics in Federal Hill. The couple switched to a vegan diet after Taneea was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“You can’t separate health with what you put into your body,” said Yarborough, a two-time cancer survivor.

Some options on their menu such as the ODB broccoli burger and the Swizz Beets burger are inspired by hip-hop artists.

“I think curiosity of veganism within the Black community has always been there,” Yarborough said. “It’s just that it’s becoming more accessible, and it’s becoming easier for people to change their lifestyle.”

Across the city in Waverly, My Mama’s Vegan restaurant has been serving mostly vegan options since October 2019. But in March, owner Debonette Wyatt-James says, her restaurant shifted to offering only plant-based dishes.

“My customers were an inspiration behind that,” Wyatt-James said. “We added more vegan dishes, and it wiped out the other menu we had.” They also had to add more staff to prepare meals such as vegan “chickn cheesesteaks” and buffalo cauliflower bites. They plan to move this month to a larger spot four blocks away on Greenmount Avenue.

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“Earlier this year it was just me and one other person,” Wyatt-James said. “Now we have seven more, and our location is at capacity.”

“I believe social media created an awareness and a buzz about veganism,” Wyatt-James said. “When you see people like the members of the Wu-Tang Clan or Beyoncé trying to go vegan, it’s inspirational and it makes people wonder, ‘What am I missing?’”

Naijha Wright-Brown, of The Land of Kush , one of the city’s oldest Black-owned vegan restaurants, said she and her husband, Gregory Brown, will open a second location on Chester Street in East Baltimore toward the end of next year.

When they opened their eatery in 2010, they were among the first restaurants in town to offer a 100% plant-based menu with comfort food such as sweet potatoes, vegan mac and cheese, and vegan crab cakes.

Naijha Wright-Brown, owner of The Land Of Kush, a vegetarian restaurant in Baltimore, with a takeout container of some of the restaurant's lunchtime offerings. July 30, 2020
Naijha Wright-Brown, owner of The Land Of Kush, a vegetarian restaurant in Baltimore, with a takeout container of some of the restaurant's lunchtime offerings. July 30, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The couple plans for their new space, Land of Kush, VeganSoul Bistro, to seat up to 75 people and hopes it can be a hub for entertainment and lectures.

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Health experts say that people interested in changing their dietary transitions don’t have to go all or nothing, as there are different layers to becoming vegan, or vegetarian, which excludes meat, fish and poultry, but still includes some animal products. Even shifting eating a little bit, experts say, can make a difference for the climate, and for health.

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“The foods in a plant-based diet are much more healthy for a body to digest,” said Joycelyn Peterson, a registered dietitian, director of Nutritional Sciences at Morgan State University and longtime advocate of veganism.

Peterson pointed to evidence-based studies showing that people who eat more plant-based foods tend to live longer.

Nicole Foster and her husband, Dwight Campbell, started Baltimore’s Cajou Creamery, a plant-based ice cream business, because their two sons, ages 8 and 13, love to eat ice cream but are lactose intolerant.

After experimenting in their home kitchen by making their own vegan ice cream using almond milk and then cashew milk, the couple liked the results.

They opened an online ice cream store two years ago and now sell and deliver seven globally inspired flavors such as Baklava from the Middle East and Cortadito from Cuba in pint containers to porches across the city. They expect to open a small shop on Howard Street before the end of the year, something reminiscent of the quaint gelato shops in Rome.

Foster says she believes she and her husband, Dwight, have created something that is not only natural, but also better tasting.

“The cashew represents reinvention,” Foster said. “Through our ice cream, we reintroduce a way to see a sweet treat that we love in a different light.”

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.

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