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¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
I’ve been on a vegan kick lately. Maybe after visiting my family in Mexico—a trip that began with tacos al pastor, continued with tacos al pastor and ended with tacos al pastor—I subconsciously reverted to a cleaner, lighter diet upon my return to California. Luckily, the Bay Area is one of the country’s leading regions for vegan options, as evidenced by events like The Bizerkeley Food Festival later this summer.
This week I linked up with The Vegan Hood Chefs, a popular duo from San Francisco who serve bomb, Southern-inspired comfort foods while “revolutionizing hood nutrition.” They are part of a larger wave of Black vegan entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, including Souley Vegan and Vegan Mob, who are redefining what vegan food can be for diverse communities.
Plant-based po’ boys with oyster mushrooms? Giant plates of jambalaya using vegan sausage, bell peppers, onions, garlic, rice and celery? Marinated chunks of breaded jackfruit fried in Cajun spices? The Vegan Hood Chefs have got it all. And like any true Bay Area hustlers, they’re everywhere with it, posting up in the Mission, Stockton, Oakland and beyond—anywhere they can serve their flavorful heritage to hungry folks who might not yet know the pleasures of veganism.
When I met them in a parking lot on 18th and Valencia, Ronnishia Johnson-Hasan (a licensed clinical social worker, mother and family caretaker from Hunters Point) and her business partner, Rheema Calloway (chef, caretaker and community organizer from Lakeview), were blasting Bay Area anthems from a sound system and dishing up mounds of vegan goodies, including four varieties of “loaded” french fries: Jackfruit Birria (spiced jackfruit, cilantro, diced onions, and vegan cheese sauce), Surf and Turf (Konjac Root Skrimp and Lions Maine “steak” with creamy Alfredo sauce), Jambalaya (vegan parmesan garlic butter and vegan jambalaya) and Poke (coconut-marinated papaya, seaweed, wasabi mayo and hearts of palm “Krab”).
It was more than enough to excite any vegan eater—whether full-time, part-time, or first-time. I took a seat with them to hear about how it all started.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KQED: When did you each begin your individual journeys as vegans?
Ronnishia: I started my transition into veganism in 2010, 2011. I was an undergrad at Texas Southern University, and we were roommates. I had hypertension blood pressure, so my boyfriend at the time educated me on a plant-based diet, my weight and overall health. I did more research and I started the process. I cut out red meat, and eventually over 10 to 12 years I became full vegan.
Rheema: We were best friends. When she started her transition in college I thought she was crazy—she was eating differently and cut all her hair off. But when we graduated and came home [to San Francisco], we started to learn more about food justice. She challenged me to do a fast with her, so we did it for 30 days. I realized how much energy I had and how good I felt afterward. I was a struggling pescatarian at first, and then around 2012 I transitioned to being vegan.
How did The Vegan Hood Chefs start?
Ronnishia: It started in 2017. We started this journey by wanting to eat healthy. We lived in a food desert as Black folks. Most of our work is in our own communities, which are food deserts, where people aren’t having conversations around veganism in a culturally connected way. We wanted our families and folks we love to join the conversation about food justice. And we didn’t see people like us leading those conversations.
At first, we started a food page on Instagram to raise awareness on what we were eating and cooking. We didn’t plan to start a business at all. Then, one of our friends at the time was hosting an event and their caterer backed out at the last minute, so she asked us to do it instead. At the time, we had a partner in culinary school—my cousin—and we figured we could try to do it together. My day job used a kitchen whenever we needed to cook for kids, so we used that. [That first event] we cooked for 200 people and it sold out. That spread through word of mouth and online and it took off from there. It just filled a need in the community around veganism and eating healthy as a healing practice in Black and Brown communities.
What’s an example of a dish on your menu that is popular?
Rheema: The Sucka Free Poboy is special. We’re intentional about naming our items. It’s based on San Francisco [“Sucka Free City”] and how we speak here, but inspired by our grandmothers, who are both from Louisiana. We grew up eating this. Our Po’boy uses oyster mushrooms battered in the way our grandmothers would do it. It’s fried, with lettuce, tomatoes, purple cabbage, green onions and topped with our house sauce.
Ronnishia: Also, the bread we use is super awesome. It’s from Acme, a local bakery. Our mushrooms are sourced by Far West Fungi!
How does your food reflect your connection to the Bay Area?
Ronnishia: I’m from Hunters Point and Rheema is from Lakeview. It’s printed on our truck. We have a deep connection to our heritage and culture, but also to The City. A lot of families migrated here from the South to work in the shipyards, so there’s a deep relationship to places like Louisiana and Texas. We bring that out in our food with the names and ingredients we choose. We want you to get our experience as Black folks living in San Francisco.
Rheema: We’re all over the Bay, too. The beauty of the truck is that we get to honor who we are, but also meet people where they’re at. We’ve been from S.F. to Richmond to Oakland to Stockton to Sacramento to Santa Cruz to San Ramon to Sonoma County and back. It’s dope. We’re popping up everywhere. We also did that when we didn’t have the truck, but now it’s about giving more accessibility in our communities. We’ve also been partnering with Bay Area businesses like Natrully Herbs in Richmond, a Black-owned collaborative space with smoothies and alkaline foods, which is a step above vegan.
What challenges have you overcome with running an independent business?
Ronnishia: Lack of representation. We started off in this industry without any real knowledge around how to run a food business. Fortunately, we picked that up along the way. But it’s often difficult for communities of color to have the capital to start a business, even when we’re being innovative. It makes you doubt yourself. Lacking access to mentorship and support, we had to figure out how we do it all as we go.
Also, it’s difficult to be a Black woman in a male-dominated industry. It feels like we have to work 10 times as hard to be taken seriously and have the same opportunities. The food industry is fast-paced and changing, so there’s always a need to pivot and keep your business sustainable. During the pandemic we were affected—before we had a food truck—and we had to completely revamp our model from pop-ups and home events to using social media more and engaging our audience. It’s hard to find good, reliable staff too. That’s happening all over the food industry right now.
When you’re not eating your own food, where do you go to grub on vegan dishes?
Rheema: Our top favorite is Om Sabor, on Grove Street [in San Francisco]. It’s Latinx inspired and influenced. They make the best muthafuckin’ krab sushi and food fusions. The enchiladas there are hella good. They do vegan plates that you can share in groups. Golden Lotus, in Oakland. Comidadejen, Casa Borinqueña and Koquito, Puerto Rican-infused places.
Ronnishia: Malibu Burgers in Piedmont is good. We go to Wildseed a lot; they have a delicious mushroom pizza we love. There’s great Ethiopian food like Oasis Cafe in Fillmore. Café Romanat in Oakland. Vegan Solstice in Stockton, which hosts pop-ups. Vegan Heat, Black-owned, that’s a pop-up.
Rheema: Oh, what’s our favorite ice cream place called? Kubè Nice Cream in Oakland. They have this coconut and key lime ice cream. Oh my gosh. It’s hella good. Makes you wanna slap your momma.
What are you cooking up next?
Ronnishia: We’re working on a cookbook that should be coming out towards the end of this year. We’re working on more online content as well—we want to tap into creating more video content, to provide resources around how to shop and where to start being vegan. This work is something we really enjoy, and these are the conversations we have with people from our communities who visit our truck. We have a blog we utilize somewhat—which the Bizerkeley Vegan used to write for—but we haven’t been able to do that as much lately. Our main mission is to just keep connecting and educating our community, and to cook in as many ways as possible.
Rheema: We’re in the Mission a lot. You can’t miss us.
The Vegan Hood Chefs regularly rotate menus and locations. Check their social media pages for updates on where they’ll be next.