HARLEM — When she told friends that she was planning to set up shop in Harlem to sell vegan food, some people told Brenda Beener that she was making a poor business decision.
"I heard about how bland vegan food was," said Beener, 60, who hasn't eaten meat in almost 25 years. "I heard that people of color wouldn't be interested."
But from her first small set-up that consisted of three burners and three warming plates at Lee-Lee's Bakery on 118th Street — a spot famous for its rugelah — Beener proved her doubters wrong. It was so successful she opened her own place, Seasoned Vegan at St. Nicholas Avenue and 113th Street.
"Our customers said it was time for us to have our own restaurant," said Beener, who operates the restaurant with her son Aaron, 29, a Morehouse College graduate who serves as general manager.
"Some of my best customers are meat eaters who told me that if they could eat like this every day they would be vegan."
Eating the Seasoned Vegan way includes vegan versions of chicken and waffles, riblets, gumbo and a variety of vegetables such as collard greens and string beans, all well seasoned to tempt the taste buds. Each dish has 24 to 26 different seasonings with attention paid to the amount of salt used.
There are also tasty desserts such as French toast and butterscotch cupcakes.
Beener calls her creations soul food, but not the traditional Southern variety.
"I prepare it with love and put my soul into it," Beener said.
Beener won't give away much of her recipes because the long-term vision for Seasoned Vegan is a line of frozen foods and restaurants in other cities. But she revealed that her macaroni and cheese, which tastes close to the non-vegan version, uses flax seed milk to make a delicious "cream" sauce. "Mama's "chicken" with red sauce has a soy base.
Seasoned Vegan won the Harlem Business Alliance's business plan contest last year and the $5,000 prize that went along with it. With a low interest loan from the alliance and a Kickstarter campaign, Beener officially opened earlier this month.
"It's a great mother and son team from Harlem and we love everything about them," said Regina Smith, the alliance's executive director.
"I'm not a vegan but the food is delicious. I will be taking friends to the restaurant."
Beener began cooking vegetarian when her husband gave up meat. She used tricks she learned from her father, who worked as a chef in New Orleans.
Aaron Beener says it was rough at first. But then his mother figured out how to use the vegan products that were available and infuse them with the seasonings she learned from her parents. By the time he left for college, his mother's cooking had gotten so good that he was spoiled.
"I was in my college cafeteria and said: 'Is this how people eat?' I called my mom and told her that I appreciated her and that I had been taking her for granted."
Beener became more interested in health and longevity and decided she wanted to introduce the idea of healthier eating to her community.
"With African-Americans suffering from higher rates of blood pressure, cancer and heart disease than other races we still don't accept that it comes from our diet," she said.
"You should always be conscious of what's going into your body. I opened up the restaurant because I wanted to give my people another option."
The early response has been enthusiastic, leaving Aaron Beener optimistic about the restaurant's future.
"People have been screaming out for healthier food options in this neighborhood for a long time," added Aaron Beener. "You used to have to leave the neighborhood to get something healthy or organic, forget about vegan."