In the heart of Harlem, where resilience and innovation know no bounds, a remarkable story unfolds — one that exemplifies the spirit of entrepreneurship, the power of community and the ability to find stability amid chaos. As New York City grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic, two visionary sisters, Janine Smalls-Gueye and Lanise Herman-Thomas, committed themselves to being a part of the solution. “We know that everything starts with the gut, and so many people in our community were dying because of underlying conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and things of that nature,” says Herman-Thomas. The sisters’ response to the turmoil was creating VeganHood — a tasty Black-owned vegan soul food restaurant that has become a Harlem staple.
Smalls-Gueye and Herman-Thomas began selling sea moss by word of mouth at the beginning of the pandemic. After experiencing a good measure of success, they started selling some of the prepared foods they ate regularly. Smalls-Gueye turned pescatarian in 1996 and ultimately transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle in 2016. Herman-Thomas stopped eating meat in the early 2000s and became plant-based around 2017. And while neither of them is a professionally trained chef, they’ve been cooking since they were young. “We decided to cook what we cook at home for the community, and that went super, super, super crazy,” says Herman-Thomas. Fast forward to April, and VeganHood opened its doors to the public.
Initially, VeganHood was essentially a ghost kitchen, only open three days a week. “When we opened up, there were no relationships with Grubhub, DoorDash… it was just word of mouth and lines wrapping around the corner,” says Smalls-Gueye. They finally partnered with the food delivery services once they started to see how lucrative the business had become. “Before we knew it, on day one, all the orders came in, and we were so unprepared,” she says lightheartedly. “We had to cut the machine off and go get help.” But it didn’t take long for the sisters to find their groove and rhythm, and the results showed. “In less than five months, we made over six figures,” says Smalls-Gueye.
Smalls-Gueye and Herman-Thomas were the first chefs at VeganHood and are responsible for creating every recipe on the menu. But as business started booming, they realized cheffing it up could no longer be their primary responsibility. Fortunately, they had a relative with years of experience in the entertainment restaurant nightlife business. “We begged him, got him on and the rest was history. We taught him our stuff, he tweaked some things and now he’s the master chef of the restaurant who teaches everyone else,” says Herman-Thomas.
Unlike many vegan restaurants, VeganHood isn’t just a go-to spot for those with plant-based diets; meat lovers also frequent the soulful restaurant. “What stands us apart from the field is that we highlight everything being veganized, but not compromised,” says Smalls-Gueye. “We don’t compromise the flavors. Everything tastes just like your mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen – what you’re familiar with,” she says.
“Our goal with VeganHood is to bridge the gap between the hood, the community and veganism, not to convert you into a vegan,” they explain, finishing each other’s sentences. “We just want to expose you and help with the hopes that you will make healthier food decisions when picking and choosing what you’re eating.” But they feel connected to an even bigger purpose that has nothing to do with the world of cuisine.
Since they were little, they’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. They started their first nonprofit in 2007 and, in 2012, took a risky leap of faith by leaving the stability of their corporate jobs behind – a move that’s paid off well for them. “We jumped out the window, left our jobs, left our careers, and it’s been history,” says Smalls-Gueye. And they haven’t returned to corporate America since. “We really just hope that everyone knows that if you have something you want to go after, a goal you want to attain, a business you want to seek after – go for it!”
Hours of operation: Monday – Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m. / Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 12 a.m. / Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Address: 2100 Frederick Douglass Blvd. New York, New York, 10026
Phone number: (917) 905-2043