Three blocks north of Central Park, on Saint Nicholas Avenue and West 113th street, the Harlem restaurant Seasoned Vegan has become one of New York City’s most valuable vegan gems. What started as an occasional pop-up sale of homemade food, became Harlem’s first ever full-service vegan restaurant in 2014. The local community has embraced Brenda and Aaron Beener, the mother and son duo behind Seasoned Vegan. If you’re planning a trip to New York City and want to explore the vegan scene, Seasoned Vegan should be at the top of your list. The love and attention for detail that goes into their creations is undeniable and the food is sure to impress even the most skeptical of non-vegans. I met with Brenda and Aaron to find out more about their passion for veganism and how their business got started.
A little over two decades ago, Brenda Beener’s husband made a decision that would change their lives. After a 21-day fast, he decided to cut out all animal products from his and his family’s diet. Although they had already stopped consuming red meat and pork, Brenda says it was still quite the shock, but she was determined to learn how to make it work. At the time, veganism was practically unheard of and she knew no other vegans.
“I had to decide at that point what I was going to do because I had to prepare food that would be acceptable for my husband but also tasty for my children,” Beener says. “It could be tasty for him, but having kids, I really had to make sure that it was good. So I went out and bought vegan cookbooks from Barnes and Noble, but they were all terrible.”
Through trial and error, she used her knowledge of cooking, passed down to her from her parents who hailed from Louisiana, to create meals that her whole family could enjoy. Although her son and co-founder of Seasoned Vegan, Aaron Beener, says he and his younger sister latched on to their mother’s cooking easily, their family and friends gave them a rough time. His mother agrees that they were alienated for choosing to live a healthier, more compassionate lifestyle. “It was strange, these people who I was really cool with stopped inviting us to events. It was like we were aliens,” she says. “And we chose to think outside of the box and not only think, but live outside of the box. As a consequence, we became the strange family. “
“And we chose to think outside of the box and not only think, but live outside of the box. “
Once their friends and family tasted the dishes she created, however, they changed their minds. “Our house was kind of a place to stay away from for many years, but after she got a hold on her skills it was just the opposite,” Aaron says. “So over the years our friends and family would come over and encourage her to provide the foods to the greater community.”
After he got back from graduate school, his mother expressed interest in feeding their surrounding community and although he agreed to help, he did not think he would stick around long since he had dreams of being an interpreter. So in 2010, they rented a table in a bakery on 118 Lane St, where they quickly gained a huge following with lines outside the door.
Once they realized their potential, Aaron threw out his plans to leave; they started a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than 20 thousand dollars to open their restaurant. Compared to other parts of the city, Harlem is lacking in vegan restaurants, which is why the mother and son team decided they would keep their restaurant local and try to be a positive change in the community. “We recognized that our community has been historically troubled by diseases and illnesses that you cure strictly with diets,” Aaron says. “And we were trying to figure a way out where people can eat vegan and still have a familiar type of cuisine.”
Mrs. Beener and her son created the slogan “The food you love – veganized,” because they wanted people to know they could still enjoy the foods they got used to eating at Thanksgiving and Sunday dinners with their family.
The menu at Seasoned Vegan resembles what you would find at a traditional American soul food restaurant, without what Aaron calls ‘scary vegan foods.’ “We didn’t want people to read the menu and say, ‘Oh no what is quinoa’, although we do have things like that, we use them as specials,” Beener says. “We want people to walk by, see the menu and give it a try and a place vegans can bring their non vegan friends without them being afraid to try things.”
Along with a full menu of southern comfort food, Mrs. Beener also created a raw vegan menu because the only other place serving raw options in Harlem had just closed its doors. She says that she wanted to give raw foodists a place to go and create an all-inclusive restaurant.
[Left: Aaron Beener with his daughter, who was born and raised vegan. Right: Brenda Beener in front of her restaurant, Seasoned Vegan, on Saint Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, New York.]
As they become more popular, Mrs. Beener hopes she can use her reputation to bring more people to the vegan lifestyle. She hopes to one day write a cookbook that will help people realize vegan cooking is not hard.
“I want people to taste my food, come in and buy the book, then go home and cook the food for their families,” she says, “I personally know the benefits of eating vegan and I want people to be able to experience what I have experienced in my life, which has been amazing.”
Where to find Seasoned Vegan
55 Saint Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, New York, 10026. Cross street: West 113th street.
Closest subway stops: 116th street stop on Malcolm X Boulevard and West 116th street (metro lines 2 and 3), 116th street stop (metro lines C and B) on West 116th street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard.
Opening hours: MONDAY (closed) | TUESDAY-FRIDAY 5pm-10pm | SATURDAY 11am-10pm | SUNDAY 11am-9pm
Follow Seasoned Vegan on Social Media
Story & Photography: Kim-Julie Hansen
Editor: Odochi Ibe.