Food | Food Issue 2017

The Varied Veganism of the South Side

Business owners sustain a vegan movement with a focus on access and education

Jasmin Liang

That Majani Catering is opening a South Shore brick-and-mortar restaurant in May after just four years of successful operations shows the tradition of veganism on the South Side remains alive and well. Along with Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, Majani’s proprietor, Camilla Alfred and Gabrielle Darvassy also own and manage vegan food institutions in South Shore and Hyde Park. Each of these South Side residents possess similar but distinct visions centered on healthy and clean eating, and each see their restaurants as feeding more than just the stomach but also the brain, body, and soul. The Weekly spoke with Emmanuel, Alfred, and Darvassy to talk about their institutions, origins, and hopes for the future.

Camilla Alfred of Good Foods Health Center

Camilla Alfred is the owner of Good Foods Health Center, a vegan deli and health food store in South Shore. She has been running Good Foods for more than twenty-five years and has moved various times to accommodate the growth of her business.

Good Foods grew out of Alfred’s interest in naturopathy, an alternative medical practice that discourages modern medical techniques, such as surgery, vaccination, or medication, in favor of “non-invasive” techniques, which proponents call natural practices or self-healing. Dr. Alvenia Fulton, who ran a natural healing institute in Englewood, introduced Alfred to naturopathic medicine while she was sick, and Alfred was inspired to open her own place in order to share her newfound notions of healthy living—which, for her, now included veganism—with a wider community.

After completing her studies to become a naturopathic practitioner, Alfred felt prepared to manage a health foods store that promoted overall wellness. Alfred notes that prior to running Good Foods, she worked as a caretaker. “Helping people was something I always wanted to do,” she said.

She first opened Good Foods on 75th and Cottage Grove, and has since expanded her business to a larger location in South Shore, on 73rd between Jeffrey and Euclid. Her dishes include vegan pies in flavors like blueberry and apple cream cheese, vegan whoopie pies, strawberry apple pear ginseng smoothies, vegan burgers, and vegan corned beef sandwiches. She also sells alternative natural health products such as fermented ginger kombucha, electric alkaline whole foods, and detox cleanses.

“I want children to learn how to prepare foods they grow themselves and share the foods with their family members,” Alfred said. Her commitment to promoting holistic health and clean living in the community, especially among children, has only grown over time. Good Foods has been working the land of the community garden across the street from them for the past six years, enlisting volunteers and paid help through partnerships with the University of Illinois, After School Matters, the Put Illinois to Work program, and Father Michael Pfleger.

Alfred’s goal for Good Foods going forward is to hold classes on food preparation that emphasize the importance of eating and thinking healthy. They also aim to grow the community garden and reach more kids in the community. Currently, a number of youth volunteer and work in the garden.

Good Foods Health Center, 1966 E. 73rd St. Monday–Friday, 11am–7pm. (773) 420-3832.

Gabrielle Darvassy of B’Gabs Goodies

Gabrielle Darvassy also turned to veganism because of an illness. “I needed to fuel myself,” she said. She is now the owner of B’Gabs Goodies, a vegan restaurant located on 57th Street in Hyde Park. B’Gabs’ brand of veganism is unique, according to Darvassy: “We don’t just do vegan. We do no gluten, no soy…There are other vegan restaurants around, and other vegetarian restaurants around. But almost all of them include some type of alternative meat in their product line, like seitan, seat, or tempeh. We don’t do that because our belief is that isn’t the best thing for your body.”

Like Alfred, she started B’Gabs Goodies in a different location, in Woodlawn, on 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue. “I intentionally started in a food desert,” Darvassy said. “All kinds of people want to eat healthy. That became quickly apparent in Woodlawn.” She said that she designed her price structure to be reasonable, reflecting her dedication to making clean, healthy food accessible. The cost of an entrée ranges from $6 to $12.

At her first location in Woodlawn, B’Gabs exclusively produced raw food, meaning that nothing was cooked. Once she was ready for expansion, she considered spaces in Hyde Park, Oak Park, and potentially Lake Park or Lincoln Park. Hyde Park won, and Darvassy attributes that to its community. “[Hyde Park] is our own community. I had the desire to continue to serve people who look like myself.”

With the move to Hyde Park in 2014, B’Gabs expanded into the realm of cooked foods, like tamales, curried lentils, and Peruvian black beans. The space they were considering already contained cooking equipment, which Darvassy interpreted as a sign she was making the right choice.

While Darvassy has always aimed to promote clean eating and healthy living, she is quick to emphasize that she is not trying to proselytize. “My goal and mission has never been to convert people into raw food or vegan food,” she said. “My goal has always been to have people eat cleanly. Over the years, I have discovered that everyone’s definition of clean eating is different.”

For Darvassy, clean eating involves taking chemicals out of the food, using local vendors, and utilizing local produce as best as one can in a state with a six-month growing season. Her personal relationships with farmers and vendors prove integral to B’Gabs’ operations.

Darvassy supports all small businesses, regardless of whether or not they serve meat. She says, “If someone is cooking for you with the intention of love, without the intention of harm, you can’t deny the passion that’s coming from that. There’s no negativity coming from me about how people feed other people.”

B’Gabs has earned a reputation as a space of health, partially because they sell herbs, essential oils, and other types of alternative health products. Because of that, people often come in with medical questions. Darvassy said that she decided to have a physician meet with ill clients about selecting food for their condition instead of offering medical advice without the proper training. What started out as a physician referral has grown into an external consultation group of medical professionals to satisfy the needs of “those who are coming in who need to do something quickly to help themselves,” as Darvassy puts it.

More than a restaurant known for its chipotle burger or its smashed potato bowl, Darvassy seeks to cultivate B’Gabs as a place of nurturing and healing. “I don’t want to be, and I don’t think we are, the average restaurant,” she said. “I want a space where people feel like they can come in and sit for as long as they want, or grab their food and go, and feel invited. I want a space where people feel like they can take a pause in their day.”

As she identified challenges that exist for B’Gabs as well as veganism more generally, Darvassy discussed the consequences of neighborhood changes in Hyde Park over the last couple of years. She thinks developers’ investment in making 53rd Street a major thoroughfare in the neighborhood has affected business. “The infrastructure that has been put up [on 53rd Street] has basically been there to put people in a corridor,” she said. “Some businesses thrive based on their physical location, and that’s a very important factor. Every business that’s not in that corridor will see far less traffic.”

B’Gabs’ location on the South Side also brings challenges; Darvassy said that a vegan restaurant on the North Side experiences more traffic by virtue of its location. Yet she does not regret her decision to move into Hyde Park and has worked to overcome those obstacles. “This is our community, this is where we live, and we just wanted to support our community,” she said. “But the majority of our clientele is not from Hyde Park.” Some of her customers come from other areas like Old Town, South Shore, and even Harvey.

Darvassy hopes to continue educating people about healthy food, especially in what she calls a very “meat-based city.” She said, “Even with my current customer base, most people aren’t exclusively vegan. I like to use the term vegan-sympathetic.”

B’Gabs’ Goodies, 1450 E. 57th Street. Tuesday–Thursday, 10am–12am; Friday–Saturday, 10am–1am. (773) 256-1000. bgabsgoodies.com

Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel of Majani Catering

Like Darvassy and Alfred, Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel wants to find an audience for veganism in his wider community. Emmanuel is a vegan chef who spent seven years working at Soul Vegetarian Restaurant in Atlanta and Chicago. He now runs a vegan catering service, Majani, with his wife Nasya who works as its pastry chef. After four years of managing Majani Catering, and three years before that catering independently, Emmanuel will be opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in South Shore on 71st and Exchange in May. Majani, which means “leaves” in Swahili, will feature what Emmanuel describes as “African-centered comfort food.” His dishes include Moroccan stew, collard greens, cornbread, and black-eyed pea fritters.

Having practiced veganism for the last thirty-six years, Emmanuel believes deeply in the effects of health consciousness. In opening a brick-and-mortar site for Majani, he hopes to make the healthy food he cooks accessible to the community. “I want to prove our model, that in this kind of neighborhood you can open up a vegan restaurant and have it be successful,” Emmanuel said. “I do think, irrespective of your income, people will go out of their way to eat a healthy meal. You just have to provide the service. People assume because you’re low-income that you can’t afford to spend the money on your health.”

Emmanuel speaks extensively about the importance of sourcing fresh and local as much as possible. “I think knowing your farmer is important, more than labeling it organic,” he said. He partners with local growers within the city limits such as Growing Home, Sweet Pea & Friends, and Windy City Greens. Majani also partners with a community garden, the South Merrill Community Garden. Emmanuel volunteers with this garden run by the nonprofit NeighborSpace.

His experiences with the garden have reaffirmed his commitment to providing a space where community members can learn about healthy eating options. “We did a couple of food giveaways at the garden,” he said. “We had zucchini and yellow squash, and a lot of people didn’t know what zucchini was. So even if you gave it to them, they wouldn’t know how to prepare it. Bridging that gap is something [Majani is] committed to.”

This mission to inform the community about healthy eating and veganism influenced Emmanuel’s decision to open a physical restaurant instead of just catering. “We were comfortable doing a catering business, but there are only so many people you can affect when you’re catering,” Emmanuel said. “We wanted to make more of an impact. We wanted to open a restaurant so we could engage with folks on a daily basis about healthy eating options.” Emmanuel’s goal of reaching a wider audience shows even in the tiny details of his restaurant: on a counter near the cash register rests a stack of African American Vegan Starter Guides—a publication that includes recipes, interviews with professionals, and nutritional information.

Majani Restaurant, 7167 S. Exchange Ave. Hours TBA.

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