When Sabrina Vixama transitioned to a vegan diet four years ago, dining out became a challenge. “It was so exciting to find a place with vegan options in 2017,” she says. She wanted to share her favorites, so she started a blog, Discover Vegans, about the restaurants she traveled to along with the recipes she made in her own kitchen.
But something was missing. Vixama’s family is Haitian American, and she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. She longed for the dishes she grew up eating — in particular Haitian patties, flaky turnovers traditionally filled with meat. “Patties are a staple,” she says. “If there’s a Haitian community in any state, you can find them at a bakery. It’s something so known in our culture. You can eat them any time, any day, at any age, it doesn’t matter. I was craving them.”
She began to experiment. “I made some filling. I made some dough. Let me see if I can create this amazing food in our culture as vegan. My mom tried it out and loved it. My friends were amazed that I was able to make it taste like actual meat.” Vixama, who studied international relations and business management, was working in insurance at the time. As she blogged about her vegan patties, interest grew. People kept telling her she should start her own business.
Today, Vixama runs a meal service, catering company, and pop-up and events business called Discover Vegans, taking its name from the blog that set her on this path. She has started looking for a storefront. Her patties — in flavors such as “steak and cheese” (made with oyster mushrooms), “beef” (walnuts), and Buffalo chick’n (tofu) — are the cornerstone of her menu, which also features the likes of Haitian djon djon rice made with quinoa, banana blossom “barbacoa” tacos, and “the cookout plate,” a perfect summer combo of plant-based BBQ “ribs,” vegan mac ‘n’ cheese, and corn on the cob. She makes everything from scratch, avoiding the processed foods and meat alternatives now common in grocery stores. They don’t make her feel good, so she doesn’t want to serve them to her customers. “I want Discover Vegans to be a brand that really cares — not just food that tastes good but that makes you feel good,” she says. “I truly believe food should make you feel good.”
Since her early days as a vegan, plant-based options have grown exponentially — thanks in part to entrepreneurs like Vixama herself, as well as to the public’s increased interest in eating less meat. For instance, according to grocery delivery company Instacart, 1 in 3 customers has bought plant-based meat or milk, with sales of the former jumping 42 percent and the latter 27 percent from 2019 to 2020. Today’s vegan startups have come a long way from earnest bowls of tofu, steamed vegetables, and brown rice. They showcase the flavors of Greece, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, American burger joints and diners, reflecting their creators’ cultural influences and heritage. And they are likely, at least at first, to operate outside the walls of a restaurant — posting menus on Instagram, taking orders online, delivering straight to customers’ doors, popping up at other restaurants.
Many prepare their food at a commercial kitchen such as Food rEvolution in Stoneham, whose vendors have included vegan operations such as gluten-free meal-prep service Ginger Roots Kitchen, Mediterranean pop-up and delivery outfit Littleburg, and former Boston food truck Bartleby’s Seitan Stand. In addition to cooking space, Food rEvolution provides guidance and assistance. “The idea of the space is to make it easy to start a food business,” says owner Lisa Farrell. It allows people to test and refine concepts without taking on huge financial risk, to see if business models work, to feel out and build their customer base, to learn whether the demanding lifestyle of running a food business is really for them. “Folks who have always had a passion around food are maybe going back to their roots and yet have a day job or other responsibilities, or aren’t sure what this would look like as a real quote-unquote idea. Going about this as a side gig, being really scrappy and nimble, is brilliant.”
It’s also a model particularly welcoming to women and people of color, who often face greater challenges accessing capital. For women, Farrell says, “it’s a very accessible path to valuing the work you already do. ‘I make these and people love them, so I want to see if people will buy them.’ Yes, people will buy them — and charge a lot for them, because you work hard and they’re really good!”
When Viviana Torres started her business, Viv’s Garden, she was working as an ophthalmic technician. In February, she left her job to pursue her dream full time, working out of a commercial kitchen in Lowell, where she lives. She runs the operation with fiance Sebastian Flores, offering prepared meals, catering, and hosting pop-ups; their 2-year-old daughter, Aleena, loves to mix. Since becoming vegan, Torres and Flores have seen their health improve. “I feel great being vegan, and I wanted to share the way that felt with others,” Torres says. “I always knew I wanted my own restaurant or food truck or little cafe or whatever it was going to be. I knew I wanted to do this. When I started with vegan meals, my love for the kitchen grew even more.”
On any given day, Viv’s Garden might offer sushi, pasta, build-your-own tacos, or dishes that draw on Torres’s Puerto Rican heritage: mofongo; a version of a tripleta sandwich made with assorted vegan deli meat; pastelon, the lasagna-esque dish made with plantains. “I try to bring in every type of culture, I don’t only focus on my culture, and I think that’s where my creativity comes into play. I love to share what I’ve learned from my mother and grandmothers and sisters,” she says. “Putting the flavors in vegan food and people being just so surprised by it, it brings me so much joy. It’s like, ‘Wow, how can this be vegan when it has so much flavor?’ We’re doing the same exact thing, just opting out of meat and replacing it with mushroom or jackfruit or whatever I want to create that day.”
At Black Bougié & Vegán, comfort food (potato skins, baked ziti), healthful salads, and Jamaican dishes share space on the menu. Chef-owner Kedian Dixon works full time as a therapist, preparing meals and doing pop-ups on the side: “I have two passion projects,” she says. As for her business’s name, “my friends have always called me bougie because they think I’m picky or always want top-shelf-type stuff. I’m Black and I’m proud to be who I am; I love my skin, I love my melanin, I love my history. I’m of Jamaican descent; both of my parents are Jamaican. And then I’m vegan. It all came together.”
She loves making dishes that bring her back to childhood, she says. Customer favorites include curry chickpeas and rasta pasta, made with coconut cream, jerk seasoning, and Caribbean herbs. “My clients love when I do Jamaican dishes,” she says. “I think a lot of people are bringing in their culture, and that’s what makes it great. We can still have the food that people would miss, but we can just have it veganized.”
Littleburg is one of the better-known local vegan startups; it won a 2020 Best of Boston award from Boston magazine for its pop-ups and delivery service. “Restaurants need to be more dynamic and have more revenue streams,” says owner Graham Boswell, a longtime vegan who has worked at restaurants such as Oleana and Taco Party. “The pop-up model was a really great way to experiment and see how it goes, and we could really reinvent ourselves from one event to the next.” Then the pandemic came, and everything shut down. “Pretty much on a dime, we launched a meal delivery service that following week.”
As of last week, Littleburg also has a brick-and-mortar takeout counter, operating Friday through Sunday evenings out of a Union Square space by backbar, Bronwyn, and Field & Vine. It’s just the next step in the business’s evolution. “It’s still not the final version of Littleburg by any means, but I’ve always wanted to fund myself and not rely on investment or bank loans,” Boswell says. “I hope people find us and appreciate what we are trying to do. I think that’s why you see a lot of vegan concepts that are not restaurants, because it’s such a leap of faith to open a spot and I don’t take for granted that Bostonians will respond to vegan food. The cost of getting started in Boston is so high.”
Littleburg’s food builds on the Mediterranean flavors Boswell absorbed at Oleana, and in particular the Greek cooking and hospitality he’s learned through the family of girlfriend Olivia Kotsopoulos. “It’s similar to the Jewish hospitality I grew up with, which was: I love you so much, I cooked you all this food, you’d better eat it all,” he says. The menu includes dishes such as seitan gyros and mushroom pitas, spanakopita and chickpea tagine, garlic scape za’atar flatbread and baklava.
“Vegan food is not a cuisine. It’s a set of ingredients,” Boswell says. “It has to be delicious — not vegan food, just delicious food. We’re not cooking for vegans. We’re cooking for my girlfriend’s Greek dad, who won’t mess around with something that is not straight-up delicious.”
Find these businesses on Instagram at @black.bougie.vegan @discovervegans @littleburg_ and @vivsgarden_2020