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Forget Whole Foods, 'Ms. Muffin' Plans an Organic Empire in The Bronx

By Patrick Wall | August 22, 2012 11:28am

MORRISANIA — Ms. Muffin’s kitchen is tucked in the back of an old white house, which is wedged between a pharmacy and a fire station, near a busy intersection on Boston Road.

There, each morning, she cooks vegan dishes from scratch, which she sells next door in a one-room cabin whose front window is shaped like a heart.

Today, Ms. Muffin’s barebones store — whose formal name is Her Imperial Majesty’s General Marketplace — offers only her homemade carryout meals.

But, one day, Ms. Muffin plans to create an organic empire inside the cabin and the quarter-acre lot behind it, complete with an all-natural general store, a vegan restaurant, a greenhouse and even an essential oil distillery.

“That’s the big dream I have,” said Tanjy Davis, 44, whose popular vegan treats earned her the nickname Ms. Muffin. “But like they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

During the summer, one of Davis’ five daughters often tends the counter, while her 4-year-old son, Khemet, bounds about the yard, sometimes chasing the dog, Cowabunga.

The children sell, for $5 or $6 each, whatever dishes Davis whips up for the day.

Recent items have included General Tso’s veggie chicken with mashed potatoes, meatless Taiwanese sausage with rice and peas, a corn burger with sprouts and cucumbers on a whole-wheat roll, green banana soup and, of course, fresh-baked muffins.

“What Whole Foods has, we’re trying to bring here,” said one of Davis’ daughters, Nyah Jarvis, 15.

To buy her organic ingredients, Davis must venture far beyond her neighborhood, taking a bus or train several times a week to Whole Foods or Traders Joes in Manhattan or a wholesale farmers market in Hunts Point.

She knows she could charge more for her all-natural dishes in other parts of the city, but her mission is to make wholesome food available in The Bronx, where unhealthy eating habits contribute to the city’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes.

“Why, because we are in The Bronx, we can’t have good food?” asked Davis, who gives her phone number to customers, who in turn call her to place orders or ask for advice.

Though some regulars say they would prefer sugary drinks to the coconut water and fresh kale juice Davis serves, and some beg for beef and chicken, others welcome an alternative to the fried and processed food more common to the area.

“The food is so great and it’s always fresh. And it’s the only vegetarian place around here,” said Danielle Chase, 26, a stylist at the nearby Nubian Hair Studio. Chase and her two co-workers are both vegetarian, as are many of their customers, she said, since the neighborhood is home to many Seventh Day Adventists, who often avoid meat.

As a child growing up on Roosevelt Island, Davis dreamed of becoming a botanist — in preparation, she would boil plants. When her father died unexpectedly, Davis and her five siblings learned to cook while their mother worked.

In 2000, she opened a vegetarian restaurant and juice bar on Pelham Parkway with her then-husband, a vegan chef. But when the seven-day-a-week schedule became overwhelming — her husband sometimes dozed off while rolling dough — they closed the popular eatery in 2004, and Davis tried real estate and even tour guiding for a few years.

Meanwhile, she bought a three-story home on Boston Road near 169th Street, which was built in 1896. She felt a connection to the house, since she has long identified with the farmers and pioneers of America’s past.

They “were driven to build a better life,” said Davis, who is part Portuguese, Ethiopian and American Indian. “It was a hands-on type of work ethic.”

Soon after she moved into the house in 2003, Davis bought the narrow commercial lot next to it. Inspired by a dream, she then erected two large tents, which she later paid $40,000 to replace with the one-story wood structure with the heart window.

Two years ago, she started selling organic cotton candy from the store, along with some fruit and fresh sugar cane juice. Before long, her customers asked what else she could make and she got cooking.

Today, the store’s metal shelves are bare. But eventually, Davis hopes to fill them with organic fruits and vegetables, homemade jams and creams, and all-natural household items.

Recently, a friend — the legendary Bronx DJ, Kool Herc, as it turns out — helped clear her backyard. Now, Davis must search for grants or loans that will let her build a greenhouse there where she could grow organic herbs and vegetables for her backyard restaurant and store.

“If God helps me, this will be a place where families come to eat,” Davis said recently, eyeing the empty lot, which lies in the shade of an immense mulberry tree. “I’m just trying to keep the flame alive.”