Detroit Vegan Soul restaurant owners Kirsten Ussery and Erika Boyd want to show Detroiters how tasty, filling and comforting vegan dishes can be.
The vegan soul food restaurant that started in West Village will be the first full-service eatery in Grandmont-Rosedale
Stevie Wonder, Wu-Tang Clan members, MC Hammer, “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard, actress Nicole Ari Parker of the TV series “Soul Food” and even former President Bill Clinton, a noted vegan, have all dined at the city’s only vegan restaurant, Detroit Vegan Soul in West Village.
While co-owners Kirsten Ussery and Executive Chef Erika Boyd welcomed the celebrities and public figures — Clinton, especially, helped distract hungry customers during a rush — they’re more excited to have the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood try their BBQ tofu and smothered tempeh when their second location opens July 22 at 19614 Grand River.
“Part of our mission is to help people live healthier lives, and in this community, they currently do not have any place where people who live here can sit down and have a meal. It’s all take out. It’s all fast food, so they needed a healthy option,” Ussery said.
The restaurant’s opening comes at a time when Americans are making healthier food choices.
The 1,200-square-foot restaurant that will seat about 36 customers and serve plant-based, organic dishes, is indeed a healthy haven in a 2.5-mile area inundated with McDonalds, White Castle, and Little Caesars.
“Our neighborhood currently does not have a full-service restaurant,” says Martha Potere, Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation’s economic development program manager, noting there is a “partially full-service” Coney Island. “Other than that, everything is either carry out or carry out and sit in.”
The 14,000-area residents have a higher than average median household income, Potere said, but they’re not wasting dining dollars at fast-food joints.
“There is disposable income in this community that folks are spending outside of the neighborhood on things like restaurant experiences,” she says. “We’re really excited to have an offering for them.”
Yet the fast-food diners shouldn’t be scared by the word “vegan” in the sign. Ussery promises they whip up “comfort food” — just with a healthy twist.
“We’re here to hopefully help people transition from a standard American diet over to a plant-based diet,” she said. “And if we don’t get full converts, it would be nice if people would consider vegan soul food a dining option just like they consider Italian or Chinese.”
Before Ussery, 38, a North Carolina native, and Boyd, 43, a northwest Detroit native, opened their West Village location in September 2013, they were far from working in the food industry. Or vegan.
Now life partners and seven-year vegans, the two crossed paths nearly 13 years ago in Detroit.
“We met at a party,” Ussery laughs. “...We’ve been pretty much together since then.”
Ussery had a career in public careers while Boyd paid the bills as a natural hair stylist. They connected over a desire to start a business — what kind wasn’t clear until Boyd’s father lost his life to cancer, and they made it their mission to break the cycle of disease in their families.
“Through our own research and experience we came to the conclusion that the healthiest way for us was to eliminate animal products from our diet,” said Ussery, not sugar-coating the process. “It took a lot to get there.”
Going vegan for health, animals
Vegans, like vegetarians, do not eat land or marine animals. Vegans go the extra step by refraining from all animal products such as cheese, milk and eggs. Some avoid wearing animal skins like leather. There’s medical truth to Ussery and Boyd’s conviction that veganism can fend off illness.
“A vegan diet emphasizing whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains is naturally low in salt, sugar and added fats while being high in fiber, nutrients and minerals,” said Dr. Joel Kahn, a cardiologist and Wayne State University School of Medicine clinical professor. “Scientific data is clear that diseases can be prevented and reversed with this diet.”
A Whole Food, Plant Based (WFPB) diet is associated with lower risks of breast and colorectal cancers, Kahn added, and studies by Dr. Dean Ornish show prostate cancer can be reversed with lifestyle changes and a vegan diet.
Kahn has been a vegan for over 30 years, starting as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan.
“The salad bar at the dorm cafeteria was the only attractive item I saw on the first day and that was it for me,” he said. “As I trained as a cardiologist and learned of the potential of heart disease reversal with WFPB diets, I began teaching my patients since 1990 of the value to prevent and reverse heart disease by choosing a vegan diet.”
Kahn also owns GreenSpace Cafe, a vegan restaurant in Ferndale, and applauds the success of Detroit Vegan Soul. “It is great to see them expanding...,” Kahn said. “The more the merrier to give people choices across the city and state.”
Animal liberation activist Gary Yourofsky has dined at Detroit Vegan Soul every weekend for three years.
“Unless I am out of town, I never miss the Sunday brunch and am usually the first person there when they open at 11,” Yourofsky said. “The mac ‘n cheese is to die for, too, especially because no one had to die for it.”
The longtime vegan follows the diet more for animal rights than health reasons. In 20 years of activism, Yourofsky has traveled to 30 states and given 2,660 lectures.
“My main perk was having the opportunity to eat at dozens of restaurants nationwide. Without hesitation, DVS makes my top 10 best restaurants list,” he said, ticking off his recommendations: “the tofu scramble wrap and breakfast sandwich — add avocado and Daiya cheese to both.”
Intimate space for the soul
With a $60,000 Motor City Match grant, Ussery and Boyd bought the building last year. It’s roughly the same size as their first location, and they plan to hire another 20-25 employees. Ussery said they may expand to a bigger building, but for now, they want to focus on intimate spaces.
“There’s a certain kind of feeling and energy that we created, and we just didn’t want to do something that wasn’t going to allow that to be present,” she said.
The neighbors are ready for the doors to open. While working outside, Boyd’s younger brother Sam said several residents have stopped their cars to share their anticipation.
“I’ve had some good food in my life,” he chuckled. “I’ve never been moved to pull over on the side of the road to say ‘Hey, I can’t wait for you to open up your restaurant!’ ”