In April 2020, as the deadly coronavirus continued to infect and contribute to the hospitalizations and deaths of thousands of people in New York City, two sisters, both vegans, began to look for ways to better arm members of their Harlem community against the life-threatening pandemic.
The result of their commiserations would be the creation of VeganHood, a 100% plant-based restaurant located in Harlem, owned and operated by co-founders Janine Smalls Gueye and Lanise Herman-Thomas. And while they started their business with a conservative bent, selling only sea moss and handcrafted teas from a shared, upstairs kitchen, the phenomenal rise in customer demand soon inspired them to expand their operations.
Last year, they became a full-service vegan restaurant, offering the tastes and menu items familiar to and popular with the urban community, including authentic Caribbean cuisine – all with a vegan flair. “Upgrading to a brick and mortar dine-in facility was a no-brainer,” said Janine, a mother of six who enjoys introducing her children to different meals – even “tricking” them at times, replacing ground beef with mushrooms in spaghetti with her children unable to discern the difference. “Our mission has always been to bridge veganism and the hood with delicious, vegan food,” she said. “We never doubted that we were on to something big because the demand was always there – we were struggling to keep up. The lines were often wrapped around the corner and some of our customers became angry on the days we were closed. We had to give them a place where they could sit down and dine in a venue that offered the ambiance they deserved.”
“In five months, and only being open three days a week, we grossed six-figure receipts. We could hardly believe our good fortune. It was clear that three days open were not enough. So, in April 2022, we opened the restaurant.” But despite their meteoric rise in sales and customer support, with an ever-increasing clientele that represented more cities in the state as well as other locations along the Eastern Corridor, they realized that they needed to educate the community about the health benefits that come with adopting a vegan lifestyle.
“We wanted to find ways to get people to love vegan food and to understand that our diet is a lot more than just leaves and water,” said Lanise, a mother of two. “Vegan meals don’t have to be bland and still have that ‘soul food taste’ and be healthier than what people in the hood have been consuming. One common myth is that veganism is eating green things and salads – but in truth, there’s so much more.” She added, the benefits of a vegan lifestyle include avoiding heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol, health ailments that disproportionately impact the African American community. “Our motto is ‘veganize but compromise.’ It’s relatively easy to keep the same flavors and textures while on a plant-based diet,” she said.
Making the Shift to a Vegan Way of Life
The budding entrepreneurs said they encourage those interested in assuming a vegan lifestyle to start slowly – perhaps changing two or three meals per week replacing meat and dairy with plant-based options. And they emphasize, you’re never too old, and especially never too young, to make the shift.
The word vegan was originally defined as a diet free of meat, dairy products, and eggs. The term now also refers to any item, from shoes to shampoo, made without animal products. Vegan diets offer compelling advantages on several fronts. They keep animals out of slaughterhouses and offer health benefits.
In their efforts to reach the youth of their community, before co-founding VeganHood, the budding entrepreneurs co-founded Young Excellence Society (YES) in 2017 – a 501c3 nonprofit that supports Harlem community initiatives and inner city/at-risk youth with innovative after-school programs. One of their notable programs, inspired by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative’s curriculum, helps YES youth participants learn more about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating in coordination with a fun learning tool – the FOOD Program (Finding Other Options Daily.) “We’re proud of our year round out of school time program – 10 months after school and two months for summer camp,” Janine said.
“During the school year, we have 75 children enrolled, kindergarten through 4th grade, and 100% of them come from Harlem. In the summer, we work with youth of all ages from all the boroughs – mostly with youth whose parents work in but do not live in Harlem and need daycare. And because we’re just two blocks away from Harlem Hospital, we get some of its employees’ children too. When people come and eat at VeganHood, they’re contributing to a worthy cause – a portion of the proceeds go to the nonprofit – so they’re able to give back to our community and to our children,” she said.
Words of Wisdom for Young Sisters with Dreams
Both women agree that the current business environment is ripe with opportunities, especially for women of color, and they want to see their sisters go after their dreams. “It’s our time – Black women – it’s Black magic coming to the forefront,” Lanise Herman-Thomas said. “We tell young sisters to just do it and don’t be deterred by the thought of failing. Failure is just a lesson learned. You learn from mistakes, then dust yourself off, get back up, and keep moving. Keep your goal in front of you. Most important, if you never try then you’ve already failed. The sky’s the limit. Of course, it’s more than just saying ‘no’ to the bad things in our community like drugs and gangs. Youth want and need more creative educational opportunities that are fun or prepare them for a trade or entrepreneurship. Sharing our blessings and our success with others in our community is easy. We want others to see that they can do it, too, and that it’s never too late,” they said.