For all the difficulty restaurant operators faced during the pandemic, minority-owned businesses were especially vulnerable. Vegan cheese brand Violife took notice—and then took action. The company teamed up with nonprofit Global Impact as well as hip-hop legend RZA of Wu Tang Clan to establish Plant Grants. Already the multi-year program has awarded five Black-owned restaurants $20,000 to help them navigate the ongoing challenges. Plant Grants also provides mentorship, with two celebrated vegan chefs/entrepreneurs, Lemel Durrah of Compton Vegan in Los Angeles and Laricia Chandler Baker of Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, offering guidance in both menu and business matters.
RZA, a longtime vegan and plant-based eating advocate, says the benefits of Plant Grants are multilayered. By helping independently owned restaurants stay open, the program also ensures that these businesses can continue to serve their communities, some of whom are located in food deserts with minimal options for healthy eating. For RZA, programs like Plant Grants can go a long way in creating both a more diverse restaurant landscape and healthier options for communities of color.
What is the Plant Grants program and how did you become involved?
Violife reached out because they were aware of my plant-based background and my desire to spread the word. There was a chance for us to actually help some restaurants in the Black community who were going through a tough time because of COVID. And I think plant-based eating is important for us as a society to start including more in our day-to-day lives. I know the health benefits of a plant-based life from looking at myself and my family; I know that individually, it’s good for people. [The partnership with Violife] was something that was positive on multiple levels. It’s economic, it’s health, it’s cultural—there are all these different things and that was an easy thing for me to say yes to.
This program is called Plant Grants and we are helping restaurants that COVID caused to struggle. Some of them are the pillars of their community, and we get a chance to help them survive another day—and gain some mentorship. Entrepreneurship is not easy, and the experience of creating a brand, maintaining a brand, and expanding your brand—it’s a process and it’s good to be able to talk to people who have done it.
Tell us about a couple of the Plant Grants recipients.
There are two beautiful ladies, Dr. Joslin Mar-Dai and her sister, out of Louisiana who have a restaurant called Vegans on the Run. They were at the point of closing. They were basically working day jobs to keep their business open because they believed in it. They believe in the old recipes that they got from their grandmother and their mother, and they translated them to vegan. They’re in a Black community, and they’re there as a beacon to get a good, healthy meal and start the journey toward better eating.
Plant Grants really gave them that boost they needed. They were so thankful for it, and I was thankful to them as well for what they’re doing in their community. Not only are our [Black] communities being devastated by COVID in many ways, but the health awareness has lagged behind other communities, too.
Meek’s Vegan Pizza down in Houston is another great story. A young Black man who went vegan four years ago wanted to do something happy to inspire his son, who loves pizza. So he started this pizza business and of course he was doing good because pizza is one of the No. 1 comfort foods in the world. He was flourishing and then COVID came. This grant gave him a chance to get a reboot, and he also had a chance to talk to chefs who were already very successful. They were able to give him information on how to maintain his business and potentially expand at the right time.
Why is mentorship so important as a business owner?
I’m an entrepreneur as well. There’s a couple of things that I’ve learned over the years, and I can share that with them and maybe it will help them in their business. People say, give back, right? You have to. I’ll never forget the time when I was trying to figure things out and there was a gentleman by the name of Isaac Hayes, who I was a big fan of; he’s made so many soundtracks and songs, and I actually sampled his music in my music. I had a chance to meet him, and he became my mentor for about three years. Actually hearing him talk about his fasting inspired me to fast. That all goes back to somebody who was older, who had a chance to travel the world, and who had experiences, was able to share with a younger man those experiences and help me in business and in my physical life.
What are your hopes for the future of Plant Grants? Will you continue to be involved?
Long term, the idea is to continue to help communities in need. Right now, it’s the Black community that was struck the hardest so we are trying to make repairs where it’s worst. As time goes on, Violife will take a look at which community needs the help.
It’s not only about those who are going through a downtrodden situation, but also maybe those who need enlightenment—communities that don’t have any plant-based restaurants or even plant-based items on the menu. So maybe it’s like, let’s go to that community and let’s start enlightening them and giving them the option to include plant-based items.
If you ever go out with your family to a steakhouse, it’s a great place and people are all happy and it’s what’s in your community; it’s where people go. But if one or two members of the family don’t eat meat, they look at the menu and there’s nothing there but a potato. There should be one or two dishes so that cousin so-and-so can still eat and enjoy the family moment because going out to restaurants is a moment.
There’s a steakhouse in California that has vegan barbecue chicken. They don’t have a lot of dishes but they have the vegan barbecue chicken and another like a vegan protein salad. When I first went there with my family, I said, well I could maybe have a cocktail, but no, there was something on the menu—and that’s important.
So I’ll be involved as long as Violife needs me to help and it needs me to do whatever RZA brings to the table. And I just hope that even if I’m not involved, other prominent people in the plant-based community who have a voice step up and continue to spread the culture.