At This New Vegan Restaurant, Your Kale Salad Is Served With Social Justice

Housed in the historic Young Men’s Institute, THE BLOCK off biltmore is as concerned with community as it is with food.

(Photo: THE BLOCK off biltmore/Facebook)

Dec 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Where the apothecary once stood in Asheville, North Carolina’s historic Young Men’s Institute, the nation’s oldest African American cultural center, is a new bar serving vegan food, juice, beer, wine, cocktails, and social justice.

“It’s about being a community living room,” explained Cam MacQueen, owner of THE BLOCK off biltmore, which opened Thanksgiving week. “It’s about welcoming everyone to the table. We want to hear all the voices we can hear possibly hear in Asheville from people who are working on issues important to all of us.”

The space this new community living room is housed in was the inspiration for the restaurant itself. Originally built in 1893 for the men constructing the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore Estate, the YMI has a long history of social activism and change. Initially providing night school for adults, a day school and kindergarten, Sunday school, and a library, it also featured a gymnasium, doctor’s office, drugstore, reading and meeting rooms, sleeping rooms, and a swimming pool. Membership at the Institute, which had been financed by George W. Vanderbilt, was mandatory, but as construction was completed on his palatial home, financial difficulties beset the YMI. Members purchased the building from Vanderbilt in 1905 and established their first board of directors the following year. Since then, the YMI has served as the center of a historically black neighborhood, and since its restoration in 1980 it has hosted exhibits, events, and other cultural programming.

All of which makes it a perfect home for a space that hosts events like Tuesday night Jazz and Justice and Spoken Word Saturdays, MacQueen said. For each event, TBob, as the restaurant is also known, will partner with a nonprofit that will receive a percentage of the bar receipts. While some of the groups partnering on events include old-guard civil rights organizations, the business is equally committed to racial equality, environmental preservation, animal rights, and the arts.

“We believe Asheville is ready to support a unique, multicultural, progressive gathering spot for activists, artists, educators, and organizers to socialize, to dream, to dare to create positive social change in western North Carolina and beyond,” MacQueen said. And lest that sound too heavy, she hastened to add, “We also want to have a lot of fun while we’re at it. Fun is a goal.”

A graduate of Howard University’s School of Divinity, MacQueen comes to the business of activism with the same experience she has with veganism—nearly 30 years’ worth. But it was Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets, where she worked on a film series for a year as a volunteer, that provided the model for a business that could prioritize more than the bottom line. Founder Andy Shallal credits the success of his chain of restaurants, the name of which is a reference to Langston Hughes, in part to that they are more than just a place to eat.

“We’re not just a restaurant. We’re a lot of different things,” he told NPR. “We are a bookstore, a gathering place, a community center.”

Staff at THE BLOCK off biltmore. (Photo: THE BLOCK off

MacQueen called the food at TBob, which recently included vegan chili, vegan queso with chips and veggies, curried lentil soup, and a kale salad, a “work in progress,” and TBob currently does not have Busboys and Poets’ benefit of a full kitchen. She is considering implementing a “busking” model, wherein food is available by suggested donation; she anticipates bar receipts to provide the majority of TBob’s revenue. In six months, she plans to apply for B Corp status. To qualify, a business must meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

The mission-driven model is one not just used by ice cream and beauty product companies. B Corp restaurants Bull City Burger and Brewery, in Durham, North Carolina, and Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Oregon, put their principles on the menu too, with pasture-raised beef and partnerships with the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium, respectively. Others weave social justice into the fabric of their business plan, like The Town Kitchen, in Oakland, California, which employs underprivileged youths and provides employees college credit.

For MacQueen, it’s the natural way to open a business. This time last year she was in Ferguson, Missouri, and when the decision that Darren Wilson, the former police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, would not be indicted, a café deemed a “safe space” for activists to gather was teargassed by police.

“The response of the owners was, ‘Really? We’ll just stay open 24/7,’” MacQueen said. “They immediately hung banners that said, ‘End racism, stop oppression.’ That for me is the spirit of THE BLOCK off biltmore.”