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Detroit Vegan Soul

8029 Agnes St.
Detroit, Michigan 48214

Kirsten Ussery Boyd and Erika Boyd

By Amy Kuras
October 10, 2013

Vegan soul food is a concept that can be met with a great deal of skepticism – how can a cuisine best known for its love of pork and butter possibly be made free of any animal products?
But if the wildly enthusiastic response to the opening of Kirsten Ussery Boyd’s and Erika Boyd’s new Detroit Vegan Soul café is any indication, Detroit has been waiting for just such a thing.
"On our grand opening day we had a line down the block when we opened at 3 p.m.," says Ussery Boyd. "People started to line up at 2:30 and when we opened the doors it was already standing room only."
At one point they had to close their doors so they could accommodate everyone already waiting. "That was a great response and we were certainly surprised –we were not expecting that huge of a turnout."
The women, who are life partners as well as business partners, were inspired to adopt a vegan diet in 2010, when they lost Erika’s father to cancer. The researched the benefits of a plant-based, unprocessed foods diet and decided a diet free of animal products was the way to address many of the health risks that plague African Americans in particular. "We wanted to help the community break the cycle of disease," Ussery Boyd says. "These diseases are really diet-related – diabetes, cancer, etc. If you eliminate meat and processed foods from your diet, and refined foods, you can reverse those things and you don’t need to take pills and don’t need all of those treatments."
They were inspired to create what became Detroit Vegan Soul after discovering Soul Vegetarian, a vegan soul food restaurant in Chicago that has become an institution in the community. The majority of their customers are not vegetarian or vegan, but are drawn in by the delicious cooking. The partners saw the potential for a place like this in Detroit. Both of them had grown up on soul food and wanted to blend those comforting, rich flavors with the healthfulness of a plant-based diet. "The point of view we were going to come from was that we wanted to provide food that people can relate to," Ussery Boyd says. "We wanted to show that vegan food can be comfort food. It immediately breaks a barrier for them and makes it easier for them to want to try it."
They think of Detroit Vegan Soul’s cuisine as "transition food" – familiar, savory and sweet flavors prepared with a lot of care and time, but using the freshness of vegetables instead of heavy cheeses or fatty meats to give flavor. "We’re showing them they don’t have to give that flavor up, and they can still be healthy," she says.
There’s also a positive environmental impact by not eating meat, which requires considerably more water and carbon to produce than plants do. Furthermore, they’re sourcing food locally from places like D-Town Farms, and sending their food waste back there for compost.
Detroit Vegan Soul opened in September on Agnes Street in Detroit, a place they found through the efforts of Revolve Detroit, a program of the DEGC, to bring more retail to the West Village neighborhood. A grant from the Villages CDC helped them launch as well. DVS was a finalist in the Hatch Detroit small business grant competition in 2012, and Ussery Boyd was among D:hive’s first group of would-be entrepreneurs to complete their program. They launched in 2012 as a meal delivery and catering service, which served as a test of their concept and gave them a chance to learn about the demands of daily food service in a more manageable, lower-risk way.
"It’s why we knew there would be a positive response," Ussery Boyd says. "There were so many people waiting for us to open who were really looking forward to us opening. There are so many people ready to eat healthier and make a change."

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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