Nefertiti Salad (Baby spinach, carrots, tomatoes and tortilla chips, with creamy dressing); Harlem Chopped “Cheeseburger” (a version of the classic Harlem staple: soy protein patty chopped on the grill with greens, tomatoes, and “cheddar”); Smothered “Chicken” (soy “chicken” patty stewed in herbs and smothered in gravy and all gluten-free).
Sounds like an organic, 100 percent Vegan menu? Well, it is and it is just a few of the delectable dishes one can find at Harlem, NY-based Seasoned Vegan, a family owned business run by mother and son, Brenda and Aaron Beener.
To be exact, it’s gourmet vegan soul food. But not the soul food you might be thinking of. “We use the term ‘soul food’ loosely because we are not referring exclusively to the typical cuisine of the Southern region of the United States,” explains Aaron Beener. “For us, soul food is any meal prepared by a chef who not only includes flavorful ingredients but also infuses tender love and care. With that as a founding theme, Seasoned Vegan gives typical Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and American dishes a vegan, home cooked, soulful twist.”
So how did the mother and son wind up opening a vegan restaurant that also serves up raw entrees in Harlem? “There are a few factors that prompted us to open this restaurant. Being generally health conscious people even before our household became vegan, it was obvious that there was a huge void to fill when it came to finding healthier dining options in Harlem,” explains Brenda Beener. “Lack of choices coupled with a deeply ingrained food culture has lead our community down a generations-long path of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Our mission is to directly combat these ailments through diet. We really want to be the beacon of healthy living in Harlem and we have started by providing an organic, vegan option amongst a sea of fast food and cheap food spots.”
The mother and son duo say they enjoy working together in introducing a vegan lifestyle to the Harlem community. “One of the best advantages of being a family owned business is that we embarked on this journey with a strong foundation of love. We absolutely want to see each other win and are dedicated to that goal,” explains Aaron. “We are also already familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can therefore flourish and overcompensate when needed. Because the family vibration is at our core it reverberates through our entire staff and customers as well.”
Still, there have been challenges, especially in the tough restaurant industry. “The biggest startup challenge for us was raising capital. We did not have enough liquid or credit to acquire conventional loans and were therefore forced to explore non-conventional options. One of our customers suggested Kickstarter where we were able to raise $22,000 which we directly used to lease our space. We were also able to attain a loan from the Harlem Business Alliance. They have been integral to our foundation as well as our sustenance to this point,” shares Aaron. “Since this is our first restaurant, every aspect of the business had steep learning curves at first. Staying determined and consulting people with more experience has helped us get up to speed and feel more comfortable handling the intense juggling act that is the restaurant business.”
Over the years, the family has found more and more interest by the community in vegetarian and vegan eating. “I think people wondered why vegan when we first started serving food in Lee Lee’s Bakery a couple years ago but now society in general is more open to plant-based diets. Our goal is really to make people feel more comfortable with the idea of eating vegan food. We want to show people that the lifestyle is not weird, has endless culinary options, is generally better for your health and also can taste great,” explains Aaron.
As business keeps growing, the Beeners have some special plans for this year. “This year, we are going to continue to improve all aspects of our business from food production to service. We are looking forward to expanding our menu with more beer and wine options, a more robust brunch menu and the unveiling of a late night menu,” reveals Aaron. “We want to build our brand to be known as one of the best restaurants in the country amongst our vegan and non-vegan colleagues. Ultimately, we want to use that brand leverage and recognition to introduce a line of packaged goods for a market near you.”
Looking even further into the future, there are expansion plans. “We want our brand to be synonymous with healthy living. When you think of preparing vegan food at home or want to introduce a vegan dish to your restaurant, we want you to incorporate a Seasoned Vegan product,” say the Beeners. “In the near future, we will be working on opening a vegan co-op factory in the South Bronx where we can produce great food to be supplied to schools, hospitals and markets with the help of a couple hundred employee/owners who we hire from the neighborhood. We’re about the upliftment.”