“Veganize Not Compromise” is motto of VeganHood Co-Founders, Janine Smalls Gueye & Lanise Herman-Thomas

VeganHood Co-Founders: Upholding ‘Veganize Not Compromise’ Motto


This month marks three years since Janine Smalls Gueye and Lanise Herman-Thomas began their concept to “bridge veganism with the hood” in the heart of Harlem, New York. First, by selling teas and sea moss, immune boosters, to help their community during the pandemic, and expanding to a full-service 50-seat restaurant and bar, VeganHood, a 100% plant-based menu of soul food items and authentic Caribbean favorites all with a vegan twist! And, with each meal, customers are reminded they are “eating for a cause” because the two chef-owners donate a portion of the profits to their 501c3 nonprofit, Young Excellence Society, which provides after-school programs for inner city youth. We recently sat down with Janine and Lanise and here are highlights from our conversation.


Q: When did you decide vegan cooking was your career path?

We always cooked amongst family and friends and they loved everything we prepared and most of them didn’t know the dishes were vegan. When the pandemic happened we knew we wanted to help our community immediately as Covid-19 was plaguing our community and our country. We began by working out of our “ghost kitchen” and selling our branded sea moss, handcrafted teas, and vegan meals which were delivered through apps. We quickly went from 20 orders daily to over 200 and that was when we knew that cooking and opening up our own restaurant was something we wanted to do and our community would welcome it! 

Q: What has been your biggest surprise since opening VeganHood? 

The thrilling reaction of our customers who are eating vegan for the first time! They do not expect our plant-based soul food recipes to taste as good or better…but they do and that’s not an accident! We knew the only way we could successfully bring our community around to trying and enjoying the plant-based lifestyle was to veganize without compromise. That means we don’t compromise on the taste or the experience of how it feels when eating the comfort foods we all grew up on. Our customers miss nothing when they dine with us. Our menu items are familiar and nostalgic, great tasting, and of course prepared healthier because they are all plant-based. 

Q: What advice would you give other restaurant owners & chefs who want to add vegan items to their menu? 

Bring as much excitement and creativity to these selections as you do with your other menu specialties. Vegan food is gaining momentum because sophisticated diners know how fabulous it can taste when it is prepared well. Our advice would be if you want to try something or explore a new option to add to your menu then do it. Food is an art and we have to continuously create and inspire. One of our dishes that we experimented with and were unsure of is now our most popular dish. With plant-based options the opportunities are endless and there is still so much more to discover!

Q: Tell us about your nonprofit and what it means for VeganHood customers to “eat for a cause”

A: In 2017, three years before we launched VeganHood, we co-founded the Young Excellence Society (YES),  a 501c3 nonprofit to support Harlem community initiatives and inner city/at-risk youth with innovative after-school programs. One of our notable programs was inspired by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative  called FOOD (Finding Other Options Daily) to communicate the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. Now, all our customers are contributing to the community and our children when they eat with us because a portion of our proceeds goes to YES which is making a difference for youth through valuable learning, mental health support, and meaningful mentorship programs.

Q: What type of music do you listen to in the kitchen?  

A: We love a combination of Afro-beats, Reggae, 90’s R&B and 70’s soul classics. It takes us back to our childhood days of cooking at home and inspires us now as we create new dishes. Growing up our families played music while they cooked and it is so energizing and stirs up wonderful emotions while helping us get into a rhythm when we prepare our dishes.

Q: What is your favorite kitchen tool or gadget?

A: That would be the air fryer which we also use in our home kitchens! It distributes the heat evenly so we can “fry” plant-based options to perfection and it keeps the healthy nutrition that plants provide our bodies.

Q: What are your most requested menu items? 

A: Everything is popular at VeganHood but customers do have favorite dishes based on categories. One of the favorite Caribbean dishes is The Flatbush, vegan oxtail which is tender and succulent beefless chunks that mimic the texture and flavor of traditional oxtail, cooked to perfection in a rich and savory vegan broth and served over fluffy rice. In our Soul Food selections, the Chix’n & Waffles is a top seller. It is prepared with a thin, crispy waffle and “chix’n” deliciously seasoned inside and out with a mild spice and herbs blend. Great for sharing, we sell lots of Mami’s Empanadas, which are full of Latin-inspired flavors with a crispy and flaky pastry shell filled with beyond beef, onions, and peppers. And, hands down, our Golden Oreo & Chocolate Oreo Puddings are the most requested desserts both made with puddings and topped with crunchy bits of Oreo cookies making this a perfect dessert!