Late on a Sunday afternoon in Detroit’s West Village, lazy brunch-goers cozy up to mugs of organic coffee and dirty chai. It’s frigid outside, but inside Detroit Vegan Soul patrons are toasty as they linger over stacks of sweet potato pancakes and plates of “catfish tofu” with black-eyed peas and collard greens.
The vibe is decidedly earthy, snug but vibrant, reminiscent of hyperlocal neighborhood joints in Brooklyn or Portland. But it’s a mix of locals and travelers from across the region who venture to eat here on a Sunday. They’re on a quest for something they can’t get anywhere else.
“They research, and they find out that we’re here,” says co- owner Kirsten Ussery. “We get a lot of people from the west side of the city, the western suburbs, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, even Ohio.”
Strongly rooted in West Village, Ussery and her co-founder and life partner Erika Boyd wanted to contribute to their local community. But they also knew what they had to offer was truly unique: healthy, vegan soul food. So they planned their business with the knowledge that it would be as much a regional destination as a local neighborhood spot.
The idea first came about as the result of a family tragedy. After Boyd lost her father to cancer, she and Ussery got very interested in healthy eating.
“We tried to figure out how could this happen to him,” says Boyd. “He wasn’t a person that smoked or drank. We looked closely and saw that there were some issues with his diet that inspired us to change our diets.”
So Boyd began experimenting with vegan cooking, and altering some of her family recipes. “I felt as though if I were going to be vegan long-term and make a commitment to it, that I still needed to be able to enjoy those flavors that I grew up with,” she says.
Meanwhile, Ussery was attending classes at the Detroit Build Institute, a small-business-development nonprofit. She started thinking that Boyd’s vegan soul food was something that might make business sense as well as health sense.
So the pair decided to launch a vegan soul food meal delivery and catering service. they delivered lunch and dinner to downtown office buildings during the week, taking breaks from their workdays to do so.
They built the business slowly, working out of their home and the kitchen at St. Cece’s Pub, building up their reputation through pop-ups. From the very start, their goal was to operate in a permanent spot.
“We really wanted to have a place where people could come and be able to have this type of food,” says Ussery. “Before this, there weren’t any options for 100% plant-based food. We always knew that we wanted brick-and-mortar, but we wanted to make sure that it was the right time, and that Detroit was ready for it.”
Although Detroit has a solid reputation as a meat-and-potatoes city, Ussery and Boyd could see they were filling a much-needed niche. And soon, they took note of a vacant storefront on Agnes Street, just a couple of blocks from their home in West Village.
“At that time, all of the retail on this block was gone,” Ussery recalls. “We would look at this particular space and we’d just think, ‘this could be something special.’ When we decided to do Detroit Vegan Soul, we really wanted to do it in this space. We wanted to be part of bringing that retail back to the neighborhood.”
Ussery and Boyd connected with the Detroit Economic Development Corporation’s Revolve program, which was designed to match landlords in vacant spaces to potential tenants through temporary pop-up arrangements. Detroit Vegan Soul opened on Agnes in West Village in September 2013 to a line around the block, and they’ve been running full steam ever since.
The menu runs the gamut of soul food favorites: cornbread, okra stew, “catfish” tofu, black-eyed peas, candied yams and collard greens. Those staples are supplemented with innovative items like the ATL sandwich (avocado, tomato, lettuce, red onion and pesto aioli served on toasted multi-grain bread or in a raw collard wrap) and the coconut “BLT” Wrap (smoked coconut bacon, lettuce, tomato, Vegenaise and avocado in a whole-wheat wrap or raw collard wrap).
To get the flavors right, Boyd began experimenting, first with standard vegan conversions, then with flavor-boosters like sea vegetables and smoke.
“I am a mixologist, of sorts,” says Boyd. “I do all of my own seasoning blends. I’ve always had a strong talent for really understanding the composition of flavor. I just kind of got in the kitchen lab and started working it out, and coming up with things. It was a lot of trial and error.”
Next up for Boyd and Ussery is growth; they’re looking to open a new location, possibly in Boyd’s native northwest Detroit, and they have a $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan to re-launch their meal delivery service.
But wherever they go next, Boyd and Ussery are intentional about staying grounded in West Village. They are looking forward to launching a neighborhood bike delivery service in the neighborhood this spring, and are part of a coalition looking at ways to connect the neighborhood’s organic waste with local urban farms.
“When we first came into the neighborhood, everything was vacant,” says Ussery. “Now we have this resurgence; we have all of these businesses on Agnes now, and Parker and Kercheval. There’s going to be more to over in terms of business than ever in this neighborhood over the next couple of years.”
Detroit Vegan Soul: 8029 Agnes St., Detroit, 313-649-2759, DetroitVeganSoul.com
Nina Ignaczak lives, eats and writes in Rochester, MI. This article was first printed in Edible WOW Spring 2016. You can contact Edible WOW at email@example.com.