Vegan Kitchen: Support Black-owned food businesses

Shanna-Kay Wright uses simple ingredients to make the vegan dishes at Yardie Ting in Portland. The owner of the Jamaican restaurant in the Public Market House, Wright says the menu’s many vegan choices reflect the influence of Ital food on the island.

Ital food, eaten by members of the Rastafari religion and movement, is usually vegetarian and always minimally processed. However, Wright points out that Yardie Ting’s vegan dishes don’t qualify as Ital, since to suit local tastes she uses non-Ital ingredients such as salt and garlic powder.

“All my years growing up in Jamaica, you would not use any all-purpose seasoning,” explained Wright, who has run a catering business in Portland since 2013. “Ital means food that is from the earth. No powder seasonings. No salt. All organic. All natural.”

The jerk tofu at Yardie Ting in the Portland Public Market House comes with black beans and a kick of spice. Photo courtesy of Yardie Ting

Ital or not, the Yardie Ting vegan dishes, including jerk tofu, coconut curry, the Mon Hungry sandwich, spinach patties, and the fried plantains, taste great and sell well.

But Wright reports foot traffic at the Public Market House remains slow, with many of the surrounding office buildings still empty. Even so, the brand new restaurant is “staying afloat.”

I’d like to see Yardie Ting doing better. And it’s not just because I like the food.

It’s also because Wright is Black, and I want to take action to promote equity and demonstrate that Black Lives Matter. As a white ally in one of the whitest states in the nation, one of the simplest actions I can take is to spend my money at Black-owned businesses, such as Yardie Ting.

In Maine, we’re blessed to have the new directory, which allows users to search by business category and region of Maine. When the site launched in June, it confirmed what I suspected. Portland is home to many Black-owned restaurants, and most offer robust vegan choices.

One of the longest-running vegan-friendly, Black-owned restaurants in Portland is Asmara on Oak Street, which owner Asmeret Teklu opened in 2004. The Eritrean restaurant was shuttered for many months because of the pandemic before it reopened in June and it remains takeout only.

All of Asmara’s vegetarian dishes are vegan, and Teklu told me she sells more vegetarian than non-vegetarian dishes these days.

“We’re doing well, so far,” said Teklu, who grew up in Eritrea and moved to Maine in 1988. “It’s not like it used to be, but it’s good for this time.”

She said the vegetarian sampler plate, which is made to feed a family of four and costs $49.95, is a strong seller right now. Asmara’s sampler plate “has a little bit of all the vegetarian options,” such as steamed greens, stewed lentils, ground and roasted chickpeas, and spicy stewed okra and potatoes. All the meals come with either rice or traditional injera, a flatbread made from a fermented dough of ground teff grains.


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Black-Owned Local Businesses: Rebel Kitchen

One in a series of profiles of Black-owned businesses across the Islands

Two rebels, one dream: That’s the story of Rebel Kitchen, located in the Kona town of Kainaliu and owned by the husband and wife team of Randy Martin and Gabby Bermudez.

Before Rebel Kitchen, Martin and Bermudez were unsatisfied with their career paths and wanted to do something in which they could see their hard work pay off. Something they could be proud of. 

What they had in common was their restaurant backgrounds – the two met working at a restaurant and already knew they could work well together.

“Randy has always loved to cook for people, whether it’s a holiday or just a weekend cookout,” say the couple in an email. “We started to dream of opening our own restaurant … and one day, we were like, let’s do this now or never, and so we made a business plan, started saving and doing lots of research.”

In 2011, Rebel Kitchen was born. 

“People thought we were a little crazy, but that’s why we called it Rebel Kitchen, because we felt like rebels for pursuing our dreams,” they say.

For Black business owners, Hawai‘i is different from the Mainland, say Bermudez and Martin, who have been in the Islands for nine years. Here, they say, people are supportive of everyone. Martin and Bermudez are, too, and it’s reflected in their connection to the larger community. 

“The most rewarding is when other Black people realize we are the owners and are proud of us, both older and younger generations,” write the couple. “For the young people, they see they can do it too – you can be Black and successful.”

COVID-19, though, hasn’t made their journey easy. The owners say that closing the restaurant for 2½ months during the stay-at-home order was difficult for them, their staff and the community. Now that they’ve reopened, business hasn’t entirely recovered, but the couple says they try to stay positive.

“We are fortunate to have a strong local business. … We have received a lot of support from our community, but business is still much slower than before. It’s going to be a long road ahead.”

Martin and Bermudez say they’re satisfied keeping their restaurant as is within their small community and have no plans to expand. The couple’s sights are set on growing another portion of their business: their condiment line. They currently sell their own Kona Ketchup, Hawaiian Fire Sauce and Mauka Mustard among other sauces and marinades – and they hope to see their products on shelves across Hawaiʻi someday.

They advise anyone wanting to start a business to start small and do the research, use local resources like the Small Business Administration and, most of all, be willing to do what it takes. 

“Being a business owner is not glamorous, but it is rewarding.”

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