Lyana Blount. Photo: Dahlia Olivo

Nostalgic, comforting smells of empanadas, tostones, and “vernil” (a vegan take on Puerto Rico’s popular roasted pork, or pernil) permeate through the air in the Breeze Hill part of Prospect Park. Their source: Black Rican Vegan food stand at Smorgasburg, where chef Lyana Blount, a native of the Bronx, was cooking up a storm. Black Rican Vegan is just one of the numerous stands at Smorgasburg, a Brooklyn food market where people gather to eat, drink, and mingle while supporting local businesses.

Blount started Black Rican Vegan during the pandemic as a way to bring tasty Puerto Rican-inspired vegan dishes to people in lockdown. Orders came pouring in from as far as Florida and the business soon exploded. Today, her mission is to get healthy Puerto Rican food to food deserts across New York City (The USDA defines food deserts as low-income areas with less accessibility to food)

At Smorgasburg, Epicenter sat down with Blount  to chat about her growing business, her new cookbook, “Black Rican Vegan: Fire Plant-Based Recipes from a Bronx Kitchen,” her Lizzo connection, and more.

What made you decide to become vegan in the first place?

I was just on the holistic journey, and I became interested in it. At the time, I was reading a lot of books on veganism and how animals were being processed in  factories. I feel like everything is energy, so I didn’t want to have the suffering-of-animals energy inside of my own body.

What made you decide to start a business?

It started off as a hobby; I was just doing it in my kitchen during the pandemic and people took a liking to it- it got really popular. I started putting out menus and now, three years later, we rebranded as a business.

Were you surprised by the response it got? I know it was during the pandemic, when people were scared of working. How did you feel?

I was definitely surprised. I think it hit me more when we did our first pop-up in the Bronx, and we had a line around the corner. I was at a venue with other people, so I thought it was just a line for the event, but someone came up to me and they told me that the line was for me. So I saw that it was in demand and it was something that people wanted.

Black Rican Vegan’s offerings. Photo: Dahlia Olivo

Veganism is sometimes looked down on by some in the Black and Latino communities, because it’s seen as something that’s just for white people. Do you feel like Black Rican Vegan is helping to change that idea?

Well, veganism overall, I think, is progressing a lot more than it did when I first went vegan back in 2016. And I think that, especially with my business, it’s very unique because I’m catering to Black and Hispanic people and it’s food that they can relate to, because it’s food I grew up eating and I just do it with a plant-based twist. So for them to have like, nostalgia, and that moment where they’re like, “I’m used to eating this with meat, but I want to try it vegan,” and then they actually like it! So it kind of helps them want to try more vegan-based options and not think of it as something that’s boring or inaccessible.

Why do you think it’s so important for your food to reach areas known as food deserts in New York City?

Because I think when something is not accessible, they tend to think that the people who do have it are the only people that deserve it, and they won’t really try it because they think, “Okay, well, white people are the only ones who eat vegan food, and it’s probably bland and boring and it’s not for me.” So when we put it in areas where it’s not really seen, they get a chance to try it, they get a chance to connect with it, and they get a chance to get educated about it.

Black Rican Vegan’s beefless empanadas with a side of tostones. Photo: Dahlia Olivo

Were you surprised by the success of it, or did you always have a feeling that people would kind of gravitate towards Black and Puerto Rican vegan food?

I was pretty confident about my cookbook, but I was surprised when I was offered a cookbook deal. I was hesitant, I didn’t even know that it was real. I was like “Oh, somebody’s just hitting me up,” but it actually turned out to be real. I’ve worked on it for over a year and now it’s here! And just to see how many people have been purchasing and trying the recipes, it makes me super proud.

What would you say is your favorite recipe from the cookbook? 

I love the “relleno de papa” and I love the “holiday vernil.” So hard to choose. I have a lot of favorites, but those are like my top two.

Speaking of things not feeling real, I saw that Lizzo posted a TikTok about your food-that’s crazy! How did you feel about that?

Super excited. She shouted us out twice; she shouted us out on TikTok, and then she went on this show called Hot Ones, it’s where you eat like, spicy things. And she shouted us out there, and my friend hit me up like, “Yo, I was just watching this show; she mentioned your business,” and that was big. So for her to shout us out on two big platforms, it was very special, and it showed that she really cares about small businesses and Black-owned businesses.  

What’s next for you? I know you want to open your own restaurant someday.

Yeah, I think right now I’m still on my cookbook high. I’m not rushing to the next project just yet, but when I do have something, I’m gonna do it in a way that I hope the community finds out about it.

Black Rican Vegan is at Smorgasburg in Prospect Park (entrance on Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Road) every Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Learn more on its website and follow its Instagram page for updates. 

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