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From Harlem Roots to Vegan Routes: The VeganHood Story

Written by:

Carolyn Young is a business writer who focuses on entrepreneurial concepts and the business formation. She has over 25 years of experience in business roles, and has authored several entrepreneurship textbooks.

From Harlem Roots to Vegan Routes: The VeganHood Story

Welcome to our interview with Janine Smalls-Gueye and Lanise Herman-Thomas, the duo behind VeganHood, a trailblazing culinary gem nestled in the heart of Harlem, New York. VeganHood stands out as a 100% plant-based restaurant, skillfully blending the rich flavors of soul food and Caribbean cuisine with a health-conscious, vegan approach.

In this engaging conversation, Janine and Lanise will take us on a journey through their entrepreneurial path, sharing insights into the inception, growth, and ethos of their business. From the creative process behind their unique menu to the challenges and triumphs of operating in the bustling New York food scene, they will offer a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a successful vegan restaurant and cater to both the palate and the planet.

The Origin Story of VeganHood

SBS – Can you share the story of how your business journey began? What inspired you to start it?

Janine & Lanise – During the pandemic, we began the first phase of our business in a ghost kitchen by selling immune-boosting hand-crafted teas, branded sea moss, and a few vegan meals delivered through apps. By going from 20 orders per day to over 200, the concept of bringing veganism to the neighborhood was proven, and we were ready to start our entrepreneurship as chef-restaurateurs!

Our inspiration for VeganHood has always been to share the health benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle, but we also have a purposeful initiative. In addition to the restaurant, we are co-founders of Young Excellence Society, a 501©(3) nonprofit that provides after-school and mentorship programs to Harlem youth.

From the beginning, we included the social impact mission that all VeganHood customers “eat for a cause” as we donate a portion of our profits to the nonprofit, and it has made a difference in continuing all of the activities and supporting the summer camp too!

The Significance Behind ‘VeganHood’ Name

SBS – Choosing the right name for a business is crucial. How did you come up with the name for your brand, and what significance does it hold? 

Janine & Lanise – We chose the name “VeganHood” because it perfectly communicates our mission of bridging veganism and the “hood” by serving delicious vegan food in our community. Located on Harlem’s Restaurant Row, we show customers living locally and those visiting that it is possible to veganize without compromise and enjoy soul food and Caribbean-inspired favorites prepared with a vegan twist!

Through our name, we want people to instantly realize they can enjoy vegan meals without compromising the taste or the flavor, as meatless meals are much more than just eating green vegetables and salads. Some people are reluctant to try it, believing it will be bland and boring, but with a name like VeganHood, we are breaking that myth!

In our name, we are communicating the health connection and dining enjoyment of eating favorite relatable neighborhood foods when they are prepared with plant-based ingredients. With VeganHood being the name of our restaurant and our new product line of seasonings, sauces, and teas, we are letting everyone know that the familiar flavors and textures they love can still be enjoyed when these dishes are prepared with plant-based ingredients.

Setting VeganHood Apart in the Vegan Market

SBS – How do you differentiate your products/services in your market?

Janine & Lanise – By being one of the only 100% plant-based restaurants serving traditional soul food and Caribbean-inspired menu items. We follow the same recipes made by our families for generations by using all vegan ingredients that are healthier and even tastier! From our Chix & Waffles to our vegan Oxtail — our customers can experience all of the familiar flavors and textures they have always loved without guilt!

Additionally, we have just launched our vegan product line of seasoning, sauces, teas, and even a fun cookie dough! Most importantly, our customers appreciate how their patronage, whether dining in the restaurant, delivery or carry-out, or buying ingredients from our product line, is contributing to the social impact mission in the community. VeganHood is making a difference, and we are just delighted!

A Day in the Life: Entrepreneurship at VeganHood

SBS – As an entrepreneur, what does a typical day look like for you?

Janine & Lanise – Our typical day starts at 6:00am in our roles as wives and mothers with special loving family time that includes sharing excitement about all of our plans for the day! Once we get our children off to school, we quickly move into our entrepreneurial activities of reviewing and prioritizing tasks for the day, whether it’s managing ongoing projects, meeting with potential investors/donors, or brainstorming new business ideas.

Our day-to-day can vary. It can sometimes be very fast-paced, with lots of multitasking and travel, to a very laid-back and chill kind of day. Throughout the day, we might engage in networking, collaborating with team members, and making strategic decisions to drive the growth of our business.

Sometimes we will spend the entire day at VeganHood working with our team, meeting & greeting customers, and trying new or existing menu items. Other days we will spend at our nonprofit, Young Excellence Society (YES), to partake in storytelling time or dance with the youth in our programs.

We also allocate time for research and staying updated on industry trends to ensure that our businesses remain competitive. Each day is exciting and full of learning opportunities.

Crafting a Vegan Menu

SBS – Can you describe the process of conceptualizing and developing your restaurant’s menu?

Janine & Lanise – After defining our concept of bringing plant-based soul food and Caribbean-inspired cuisine to the neighborhood, we decided on VeganHood as the name because we believed our restaurant would be vital for bridging veganism with the hood! This was the foundation of how we would plan our menu and name dishes associated with inner-city cultures and areas in our community.

VeganHood is a 100% plant-based restaurant, and because of the misconception of veganism and plant-based foods, the market is not widely accepted in the “hood” because people think it is boring food made with grains, raw fruits, and vegetables. So, that meant we had to conduct extensive research into current food trends, dietary preferences, and local ingredients to ensure the menu was going to be relevant and appealing. We like to say our menu is “veganized but not compromised.”

We brainstormed together and, with our chef, experimented with various dishes, factoring in seasonality, presentation, and flavor profiles. The menu was refined a few times based on feedback from our customers and test runs so that we could ensure a balance of familiar favorites and unique offerings that would set VeganHood apart from others.

Pricing was strategically considered making sure to optimize our profits while still being able to provide an enhanced dining experience. All in all, throughout the entire process, our goal was to create a cohesive and enticing menu that reflects the restaurant’s identity while meeting the needs and expectations of its customers.  

Marketing the Vegan Way

SBS – What marketing and promotional strategies have been particularly effective in attracting diners to your restaurant?  

Janine & Lanise – Our marketing and promotional strategies are paying off! We are successfully reaching our target audience and showcasing what makes our cuisines and seasonings unique. We are utilizing social media and have hired a public relations firm to help us tell our story to a wider audience through digital, print, radio & TV interviews. All of this has built awareness for our restaurant and added legitimacy to our brand, which was instrumental when we recently launched our VeganHood product line.

Additionally, we are running ads that catch the attention of potential customers, and, most importantly, we value our customers’ feedback and ideas to ensure that we meet their expectations and provide them with the best possible experience. Our customers love what we offer, and we strive to keep them happy so that they keep coming back for more.

Sustainability and Affordability at VeganHood

SBS – How do you ensure the sustainability and affordability of your menu while maintaining your mission? 

Janine & Lanise – With careful consideration of several factors, we are ensuring the sustainability and affordability of our menu while maintaining our mission. Here’s a list of some of the strategies we use to achieve a balance:

  1. Source local and sustainable ingredients: By sourcing ingredients locally, we can reduce transportation costs and support local farmers and producers
  2. Seasonal menu planning: By designing our menu around seasonal ingredients, we can lower costs and ensure the freshness of our dishes. Seasonal produce is often more affordable and supports local agriculture, aligning with sustainability goals
  3. Minimize food waste: Implementing strategies to minimize food waste, such as proper portion control, effective inventory management, and creative use of leftovers, is helping us reduce costs while aligning with our sustainability objectives
  4. Build strategic partnerships: Collaborating with local suppliers and producers has often resulted in cost savings while supporting the local economy and promoting sustainability
  5. Continuous improvement: We regularly review and revise our menu and sourcing practices to identify opportunities for improvement. We stay informed about new sustainable practices and affordable ingredient options to continually refine our approach

Compliance and Licensing for Vegan Cuisine

SBS – Can you share insights into navigating permits, licenses, and compliance issues specific to your location and cuisine?

Janine & Lanise – Know the rules and be sure to follow them! Keep a calendar of application deadlines and attend community board meetings to stay aware of any upcoming changes or new regulations. Our advice for other entrepreneurs is to ask the city for a preliminary inspection that will get you ready for your license and prepare you for inspections. Most importantly, read and ask questions on the related topics as they pertain to your municipality, and read some more!

Hiring Ethics and Culture at VeganHood

SBS – What criteria do you use when hiring employees, and how do you foster a positive working environment in your restaurant?

Janine & Lanise – We want our employees to find fulfillment working for VeganHood, so we look for longevity potential, passion and enthusiasm, management of multitasking, and how well they work with others. Customer service is a top priority, so we want to be sure everyone has the right attitude in customer satisfaction as well as understanding how to upsell to improve the dining experience for our guests. We have a group chat where we all communicate weekly, sharing ideas, tips, and concerns. We believe that is what helps us foster a positive work environment.

Community Initiatives and Partnerships

SBS – Could you elaborate on the initiatives or partnerships you have in place to support these goals, both within the business and the community?

Janine & Lanise – In addition to co-owning VeganHood, we are also the co-founders of the Young Excellence Society (YES), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing after-school and mentorship programs to Harlem youth. Since opening VeganHood, our customers “eat for a cause,” as a portion of our profits are donated to YES, which has made a difference for young people in the community with meaningful after-school activities and summer camp.

Earlier this year, we received a Certificate of Recognition from the City of New York signed by Mayor Eric Adams for our participation in the city’s world-renowned dining scene by bringing vegan soul food and Caribbean-inspired cuisine to the community as well as being recognized for our efforts and donation program to our nonprofit.


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From Harlem Roots to Vegan Routes: The VeganHood Story