For Ronnisha Johnson and Rheema Calloway, the San Francisco catering duo better known as The Vegan Hood Chefs, cooking up plant-based food is a way of combating systemic issues like gentrification from the inside. Together the pair of Black women activists push back on creeping urban homogeneity with a vegan — and sometimes gluten-free — soul food menu aimed directly at that bougiest of midday gourmands: the brunch crowd.
Their business model is certainly something of a niche. While steak-and-eggs eaters would surely just shake their heads at the suggestion, vegans with wheat sensitivities might simply believe that searching for an animal-free and gluten-free brunch is a fool’s errand.
However, The Vegan Hood Chefs aren’t the only game in town. In fact, a small cadre of talented local chefs are thriving in the space.
Johnson and Calloway were interested in the vegan lifestyle for years before they began cooking together. Best friends since ninth grade — when they first started organizing in their neighborhood, the Bayview — they say that they found their way plant-based food through broader conversations about nutritional disparities in San Francisco.
Learning about food insecurity, and finding out that the Bayview was considered a food desert, inspired Calloway and Johnson to start a blog, which they titled Vegan Hood Chefs. They used it to promote healthy eating.
Then, in 2017, after a friend’s event caterer fell through, the Hood Chefs were called into action. They cooked for 200 guests at the sold-out event.
“We say that the community chose us,” Johnson says. “People want representation in the plant-based community.”
During the pandemic, The Vegan Hood Chefs have focused on online sales and social media. They’ve also been hosting classes and workshops in the Bayview and other food deserts like West Oakland and Richmond.
Just two weeks ago Johnson and Calloway were able to reopen their food truck and park outside The Speakeasy Ales & Lagers brewery on Evans Avenue, where they offer their full brunch menu on weekends.
Michael Petitte is the manager at Judahlicious at the corner of 44th Avenue and Judah Street, one of few San Francisco brunch spots serving exclusively raw and vegan foods. A long line stretches out their door every weekend morning.
“We’ve always been interested in serving these needs,” Petitte says. “Vegan, gluten-free, and raw.”
Judahlicious offers waffles and pancakes that are both vegan and gluten-free. Though new additions to the menu, they’re already incredibly popular. Customers choose from hemp seed, peanut butter, cacao nibs, coconut flakes, mango, and strawberry for toppings.
“Pretty damn good for gluten-free,” Petitte says.
The Vegan Hood Chefs offer gluten-free options, too.
“At the beginning we didn’t [offer gluten-free food] because we weren’t familiar with ingredients and sensitivities,” Johnson says. “Now we make sure we have a menu that is inclusive for everybody.”
Their brunch menu has two items that check both the gluten-free and vegan boxes: the sweet potato scramble and shrimp and grits.
Petitte adds that the majority of Judahlicious customers come for the acai bowls. In 2005, when the owner began selling the bowls, he couldn’t seem to give them away. These days they fly off the shelf.
“The community in the Outer Sunset supports us a ton,” Petitte says. “It’s amazing.”
The shop now offers Taco Tuesdays and breakfast burritos on weekends. As one of the only exclusively vegan brunch places in the city, and the only near the beach, they have become a regional mecca for those seeking animal-free food.
Calloway says that while plenty of brunch customers are not vegan, a fair amount are at least curious about cutting back on meat, cheese, and dairy. By serving vegan options in the form of traditional soul food staples — such as chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits — The Vegan Hood Chefs believe they can help people realize that eating animal free doesn’t mean giving up on the foods they love.
“The stigma is: ‘It’s bland, it’s salad,’” Johnson laughs, noting that meat-eaters don’t seem to have a problem with her food.
Brunch-goers come see the Hood Chefs because they want to support their mission, too. It’s more than the food; they come for the vibes.
“Many working-class folks don’t originally have the access to that,” Johnson explains. “Black folks are creating spaces, like the Big Black Brunch, which is just for people-of-color to take up space.”
Dhanistha Rivera is one of the chefs and founders of Om Sabor. She and Luis Flores — her business partner and boyfriend — are both Mexican, and their food is 100 percent vegan.
Rivera was raised vegetarian. In the 1970s, her parents met at a meditation center in Mexico where they practiced Hinduism and became vegetarians.
“I grew up with those beliefs,” Rivera says. “I’ve never eaten meat once in my life.”
Growing up in the 1990s, Rivera says it was a struggle to find places that catered to her diet, and that there wasn’t much variety in the food she could find. In 2012, she went vegan, and today she is passionate about making sure others don’t have to search far and wide for healthy and delicious vegan options.
Rivera says it’s easier than ever to transition to veganism. Yogurts, cheeses, and butters can all be made from plant-based options, she notes. And, while there are still “crappy vegan cheeses that taste like cardboard,” Rivera says, these days that’s not the only choice on the table — and it’s certainly not the case at Om Sabor, which serves mofongo, gorditas, and arepas, among other tasty vegan options. Their menu rotates every weekend.
Rivera is also interested in gluten-free cuisine. Flour doesn’t agree with her, so she and Flores make sure to keep wheat-free options on the menu.
One such vegan and gluten-free option on the Om Sabor menu is chilaquiles — a Mexican breakfast staple that Rivera and Flores do right.
The bottom line, Rivera says, is to bring comfort to her customers, while also meeting them where they want to be.
These days people are choosing to eat vegan and gluten-free for a variety of reasons — from health to identity to comfort. But whatever the logic behind the decision, Calloway wants to make sure people can enjoy food their way.
“Veganism can definitely be exclusive,” she says. “It can come off like you’re being difficult. We want to debunk that.”
Paolo Bicchieri is an intern for SF Weekly. Twitter @paoloshmaolo