At NOLA Vegan Cafe (1923 Leonidas St., 504-210-7106), which opens Oct. 1 in the Carrollton area, Sonya Brown combines her two greatest passions: vegan cooking and helping others, specifically young people aging out of the foster care system.
Brown is a trained social worker who has spent the last decade advocating for children in foster care. From ages 6 through 18, Brown was in foster care and lived all over the state but primarily in New Orleans. In 2012, she founded an organization called Project 18 devoted to connecting young people who are aging out of the foster care system with housing, education and employment.
“I aged out of foster care, so it’s my whole life — knowing that experience of aging out and waiting to be a mentor and help empower these kids to live productive lives,” Brown says.
She describes herself as someone who’s always been attracted to healthy living, and she became vegan four-and-a-half years ago. Brown also focused more on her diet after a sister died last year at age 33 from a heart attack. Brown is 32. Brown’s biological mother died from breast cancer in her forties.
“For me, it’s like, ‘What can I do to prevent some of these poor health outcomes that run in my family?’” She says. “This is my passion.”
Over the past year and a half, Brown has shared her New Orleans-inspired vegan food in pop-ups and catering. A customer at one of her pop-ups connected her with the cafe space attached to the Community Commitment Education Center, which is owned by a social worker.
With the help of friends and family, Brown transformed the space, adding contemporary furnishings. She will use the business to help young people.
“A lot of the kids that come from [foster] care don’t have jobs, so they’ll come here, and they would always ask me for money,” Brown says. “Now when they come here, I’m like ‘You can work a few days, a few hours, if you just need cash.’ That’s the goal, hiring foster kids and having them work in the cafe.”
Brown tries to create vegan food that appeals to a broad spectrum of customers, including diners who are new to vegan eating. She acknowledges that New Orleanians are demanding when it comes to the flavors of traditional foods like gumbo and po-boys.
“Balancing these things with keeping the authenticity of New Orleans flavors – that’s my philosophy,” she says. “That’s why we have hot sauce on the tables next to the Himalayan sea salt. It’s really good vegan food, but New Orleans vegan food.”
The menu of NOLA Vegan Cafe is filled with vegan twists on local classics. A fried oyster mushroom po-boy mimics a fried oyster po-boy, and crabless macaroni and cheese substitutes hearts of palm for crabmeat. Artichoke po-boys are a favorite of Brown’s.
“It looks like a piece of fried fish on a bun, but it’s artichoke,” she says.
The cafe will have counter service for eating in-house or take-out. The most expensive item on the menu is Uptown Tofu & Waffles ($14), a play on chicken and waffles.
In addition food, Brown sells items that support causes she cares about. Jars of pickles labeled “Cargo” are made by a member of the organization Mother’s Circle, comprised of mothers who have lost their sons to gun violence in the city.
NOLA Vegan Café is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
There also will be a vegan-friendly sushi pop-up at The St. Roch Market for three weeks. New Orleans native and veteran chef Kelseay Dukae will offer a short menu of rolls Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 13. Vegan options include the Kinoko roll, which combines tempura-fried seafood mushrooms, sweet chili oyster mushrooms, cucumber and avocado topped with romaine lettuce, jackfruit, tempura flakes and spicy mayonnaise.