In 2013, Detroit Vegan Soul, which claims to be Detroit’s first all-vegan soul food restaurant, opened up on an empty block on Agnes Street in West Village. Four years later, co-owners Kirsten Ussery and Erika Boyd opened a second location in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood on Detroit’s westside. Before long, Detroit Vegan Soul was a standby for residents who couldn’t resist the restaurant’s plant-based takes on traditional soul food items, like its flame-broiled seitan steak rolls and cornmeal-battered tofu “catfish.”
But the onset of the pandemic was too much for the once-thriving business. In March 2020, the co-owners made the decision to close temporarily. After months on hiatus, they briefly opened up again in August 2021. But in January 2022, Ussery and Boyd announced on social media they were closing the original West Village location permanently.
“We weren’t able to staff it,” says Ussery. “We just couldn’t hold onto it.”
Across the country, vegan eating has surged in recent years. In 2021, Google searches for “vegan food near me” increased by 5,000 percent, while the number of vegans in the U.S. has increased from 1 percent in 2014 to 6 percent in 2017.
Detroit’s vegan restaurant scene is particularly impressive, says Kenneth Montville, a spokesman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which publishes a yearly list identifying the most vegan-friendly big cities. For multiple years, PETA has ranked Detroit as one of the top 10 best cities for vegan food, with both fully vegan restaurants and spots that offer vegan options.
“There are a lot of places that aren’t necessarily all vegan that are really ramping up their vegan food game,” he says, referring to places like Pie-Sci, where you can customize a vegan pizza, or Super Baked in Southfield, where you can find vegan donuts and cookies.
But restaurant operators say COVID-19 has been particularly troubling for them.
“Although we don’t only service vegans, it’s still a smaller market,” says Chantele Jones, chef and owner of a new vegan bakery in Detroit, Estella’s Vegan Cuisine and Desserts. “On top of the cost of food steadily increasing, some people already feel like eating vegan is expensive.”
Karen Kahn, co-owner of now-shuttered Nosh Pit, agrees. “It’s a very dangerous restaurant climate right now for all restaurants,” she says. “Restaurants that only deal with a certain percentage of the population already have a smaller slice of the pie… The ones that you’re gonna see kicked out first are the specialty ones.”
Nosh Pit was a casual vegan spot that offered sandwiches, sides, and arguably the best vegan macaroni and cheese out there. It started as a food truck in 2014 before securing a brick and mortar location in Hamtramck in 2017. By 2020, the restaurant’s sales were growing 200 percent per year and the eatery was even featured in a Buzzfeed video.
But the pandemic hit just a few weeks after the restaurant was filmed in March, and from then on it was just “thing after thing,” Kahn says. The business struggled with staff shortages and a water main break at its Hamtramck location. Then, the landlord sold the restaurant’s Hamtramck kitchen and restaurant space. Kahn relocated to Royal Oak in June 2021, but in October the business experienced its second water main break, this time at the new location. “This is saddening for us because we are already operating on thin margins,” the owners posted on social media.
Kahn had intended to reopen after that, but in December 2021, announced they were permanently closing Nosh Pit altogether. “I just had to throw in the towel,” Kahn says.
The most recent blow to the vegan community came in early February when Street Beet announced it was permanently closing. A pop-up turned regular at 3rd Street Bar, Street Beet offered vegan versions of popular fast food items from McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken menus.
But while some leaders in Detroit’s vegan food scene have struggled to keep their doors open, others have adapted their business models to sustain, and a handful of newly opened restaurants are finding success.
In February, Chive Kitchen in Farmington started a vegan wine club — which they say is the first of its kind in Michigan — to offer access to wines from small producers that are often not available in big-box grocery stores. In March 2020, the vegan eatery Detroit Street Filling Station in Ann Arbor began selling grocery basics like almond milk, vegetables, and vegan butter, along with its usual prepared food. Meanwhile, Seva, a longtime vegetarian restaurant with locations in Ann Arbor and Detroit, began to offer family-size carryout meals and special takeout holiday dinners.
Maren Jackson, co-owner of Seva, says that the restaurant has struggled during the pandemic to source specialty items like vegan cheese. As a result, the restaurant has paid “a lot higher price” for replacement items; but it’s challenging to communicate those changes to customers, says Jackson told.
The restaurant is also paying more for takeout containers. Before, Seva spent a few hundred dollars per month on to-go containers; now, it’s spending around $5,000. Jackson says she didn’t have any special strategy or magic to stay open — the restaurant was just lucky to receive pandemic-related relief money from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Restaurant Relief Fund, plus additional money from several local funds. “We wouldn’t have made it without the relief programs,” she says.
Trap Vegan opened in November on Livernois, bringing vegan burgers, salads, and smoothies to the west side. In downtown, vegan breakfast bowls, soups, and other plant-based meals are available at Aratham Gourmet To Go’s third location at the end of January. For dessert, there’s Estella’s, Detroit’s self-proclaimed first all-vegan bakery that opened in October 2021.
Jasmine Raiford, owner of Trap Vegan, says plans for the new restaurant were well underway before COVID-19. “We decided to keep going because we knew that the area, our community, needed something like this,” she says. And the products they offer have been in demand during the pandemic. “We have a lot of different supplements that we can add to the smoothies to make them healthy and keep the community as safe as possible,” she says.
Trap Vegan has faced the general challenges any new restaurant deals with, as well as challenges unique to the pandemic like price inflation and trouble finding certain items, like the buns they use for sliders. Even so, Raiford says, “We’re so busy. We continue on through.”
Jones of Estella’s says it’s “pretty rough out here” for vegan restaurants, but adds that she’s had success in knowing her customer base and what they want. In February, Estella’s red velvet cake beat out bakeries across the country for a spot on PETA’s Top 10 Vegan Sweet Treats in the U.S. list.
Jones has a positive outlook for vegan restaurants in the metro area. Having grown up in Detroit, she says the city has long had a vegan community and demand for vegan food. “There have always been mom-and pop-shops that have catered to vegan and plant-based [diets],” she says, pointing to Natural Food Patch in Ferndale.
Detroit Vegan Soul exemplifies this resilience. The west side location will reopen in April after a three-month break — with some changes. Ussery and Boyd plan to reformat their business by offering a monthly meal subscription service, so customers can purchase multiple Detroit Vegan Soul dishes at once to eat throughout the week. They also plan to partner with a third-party delivery company to offer delivery within a certain range, expand their catering operations, and restart Sunday brunch.
“It’s sad that we had to close that [Agnes] location, but we’re still optimistic,” Ussery says. “We’re really working to strengthen and fortify our Grand River operation so that we’ll be here for years to come.”
Correction: March 8, 2022, 6:02 p.m. A previous version of this piece stated that Detroit Vegan Soul claims to be the first vegan restaurant in Detroit, but has been updated to reflect the owner’s statement that it claims to be the first vegan soul food restaurant.