Sitting in the Land of Kush (840 N. Eutaw St.,  225-5874, landofkush.com) one morning just before the Seton Hill vegan restaurant opens for the day, husband and wife owners Naijha Wright-Brown and Gregory Brown reflect on how people are clamoring for information about vegetarian and vegan eating.
Their restaurant, which has been in business since 2008, specializes in plant-based soul food. They offer things like collard greens, yams, and their own version of macaroni and cheese.
A few weeks ago they pulled a day-long shift at the Main Post Office, giving away samples of vegan food to employees. Plant-based milk, vegan cream cheese, deli sandwiches, and kale salad were all on the menu.
“Oh my god, they were overwhelmed,” Wright-Brown says. “They were so receptive and surprised.”
Forbes magazine profiled Land Of Kush at the end of October, pointing to the Land of Kush as inspiration for vegan restaurants in Detroit and Harlem.
In August, Land Of Kush hosted an event at Jamal Bryant’s megachurch Empowerment Temple, where congregants, spurred on by the Netflix show “What the Health,” took part in a month-long challenge to eat more healthfully.
The couple says people now report to them when they decide to change the way they eat for the better. Wright-Brown recalls one dad at her daughter’s karate class who practically talked her to death about the changes in his life.
“He’s been juicing, lost some weight, changing his attitude,” she says. “He was giving me the whole lowdown and I’m looking like, she’s going to be late. It feels good when you hear testimonies like that from individuals.”
They say they try to give everyone they come in contact with a copy of a booklet simply named “African American Vegan Starter Guide,” a vegan eating guide authored by Tracye McQuirter, written especially for black people.
“When you look at vegan starter guides before . . . they didn’t represent us,” Wright-Brown says. “Great information . . . but [McQuirter] particularly came out with one that focused on how do you deal with your family that might not be vegan. She also interviewed a lot of prominent black vegans who have been vegans for a long time. You can look at it and say this is our world, it’s not just a white world, it’s our world too.”
Education in healthy eating is a big part of what they do at Land of Kush, but another part is preparing food that just tastes good. Wright-Brown and Brown say coming up with menu items is a collaborative effort.
“We do a vegan soul food cuisine,” Brown says. “So it’s vegan barbecue rib tips, smoked collard greens, candied yams, vegan mac and cheese, vegan crab cakes . . .”
“We can’t be in Baltimore, Maryland without some version of crab cake,” Wright Brown adds.
Land of Kush also offers smoothies, lentil burgers, salads, and a variety of other locally produced products like vegan donuts, baked goods, and kombucha.
Wright-Brown and Brown walk a line when it comes to offering food that is similar to what patrons may have grown up eating but is not necessarily the same. For example: cauliflower “buffalo wings.” Brown says it’s about convincing people to think differently about food.
“When I talk to people I tell them it’s cauliflower, it’s not going to taste like a buffalo wing,” Brown says. “The outside is seasoned similarly to it, but it’s a cauliflower. You’ve got to look at it as what it is. You can still enjoy it even if you’re a meat eater.”
They’ve been working together since they first met as employees for Verizon Wireless in 2008. They are used to collaborating, and food is no different.
“You get in where you fit in, and at any moment, she might be stronger than me in a particular thing,” Brown says. “She might have a great idea for food. She might make something and I might say, OK, let me tweak that . . . and put it in the restaurant.”
“That’s how we got the brunch,” Wright-Brown adds. “I was a breakfast person when I wasn’t vegan and I was into my scrambled eggs and all that other stuff, so we were eating all this vegan food and I’m like, where are the breakfast sides? Then once we opened the restaurant we took that and said, you know what? We gotta get the brunch popping off in here.”
The two say they are looking to do more.
“We’re looking for a second location right now,” Brown says. “We’d love to franchise the restaurant and make it nationwide if not global, that would be a wonderful thing.”
He says they’d also like a bigger space than the one they currently occupy so that they can offer entertainment as well as food.
They have started a nonprofit called the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland, which they say they’ll use to offer plant-based feasts to people in Baltimore.
“The first thing we did once we were in operation, we created the first Musical Meatless Monday and it started at Northwestern High School,” Wright-Brown says.
Held last May, the event featured a plant-based dinner alongside live music and attracted over 250 attendees. Wright-Brown says another Musical Meatless Monday is scheduled for this spring.
It’s important that they get young people in the city involved in healthier eating, she says, but in a way that’s attractive to them.
“Make it fun,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be about rabbit food, you know, we’re making it really good. Things that they like to eat.”