Soul Food Evolution
How a farmers’ market mistake led to a family-driven business bound by friendship.
Tony Broadway and Ebony Smalls met when they were both operating stalls at local farmer’s markets.
Smalls ran Cane Patch Pies, largely sweet potato-based desserts, and Broadway operated Healthy Soul, a vegan soul food stand. They weren’t the only Black-owned food stands but they formed a fast friendship. The two were on the same market circuit at San Diego State University, Hillcrest, and People’s Produce Farmers Market in Encanto.
One day in 2013, People’s Produce accidentally oversold vendor stalls. There weren’t enough spots for everyone, so Smalls and Broadway decided to share a spot.
“We immediately saw a real opportunity to create something together after that,” Smalls says. “It was like, hey, this could be something.”
The two found that they meshed well together and easily worked in sync. Eventually, they did more than blend their menus, they worked on an entirely new concept. Cane Patch Pies soon became Cane Patch Kitchen.
“We really collaborated on everything—business styles, menu items, family recipes, and we kept some vegan entrees,” Broadway says.
Even though Smalls admits that the first vegan food of his life, may have been Broadway’s. “Vegan was not an option growing up in South Carolina,” says Smalls, “but I like it.”
Broadway came into the restaurant business out of desperation. She had been a wife and a mother since she was 18 years old. After a difficult divorce in her thirties, she needed more than a job, she needed a business to support her family that allowed her time to still homeschool one of her youngest.
She got a disconnect notice from a utility company that prompted her into action.
“I sent out a text and posted it to everyone I knew on Facebook. I said, ‘I’m cooking, who wants $10 plates’.” The response was all the confidence she needed to make it a career. She used her tax refund and a small amount she received from a divorce liquidation and found an industrial kitchen. In 2012, she went vegan and founded Healthy Soul, a fitting double entendre for soul food and healing nourishment.
Smalls, on the other hand, spent as much time managing kitchens and working as a chef as Broadway had raising a family. He worked in restaurants specializing in Asian, French, Italian, and Southern cuisine over the years, but he credits his mother and grandmother with his love of cooking and proper food seasoning.
The day the two shared a booth, the opportunity to be better together clicked with them both. Broadway was impressed that Smalls was able to achieve a higher profit margin with the sales of his baked goods and expend less energy than her entrees. Meanwhile, Smalls was marveling at the gross income generated by Broadway’s plate orders.
That day they each also did marginally better than normal because they were selling together. Some of her customers picked up desserts and some of his customers looked over for something savory.
Broadway readily admits that “The reaction to my meatless items wasn’t as good of a reception as I needed to survive. I mean, the people that liked my lentil loaf, loved the lentil loaf. That includes my children who are carnivores and they definitely tell me what they think, but the response to all the items just wasn’t enough to survive.”
However, both her and Smalls say that the concept would have a better chance at thriving today than in 2012. Although, Smalls doesn’t think it would work in the current Liberty Station location, where people have grown to love their current vegan-friendly (but not totally vegan) menu over four years of business.
“We would need a new setup,” says Smalls.
At the time, people who wanted soul food wanted the soul food they already knew and loved, Broadway explains. They wanted “real mac and cheese” not some faux dairy approximation. But today, she says, “I think that has changed a great deal” and she hopes that it will change even more.
The mounting deaths due to coronavirus have made it exceedingly clear what effect poor eating habits and lifestyle choices have on your health. And small changes can go a long way.
Broadway spends a lot of time traveling to Africa and will spend the upcoming summer there with her children, so she advocates for a different type of soul food because she knows the origins. In West Africa, there’s a dish called “okra soup” which is clearly the origin of Louisiana gumbo. It’s traditionally served with fufu (pronounced foo-foo), a kind of dumpling made with starchy grounds of provisions like plantains or cassava to form the dough. But in America, it was adapted to include rice instead.
“People don’t have to go vegan,” she says. That’s not realistic for everyone, but cleaning up diets by adopting a few meatless days or lower-fat entrees can go a long, long way, she suggests.
Most African diets benefit from the lands rich agriculture and the meat portions are notably smaller, not just out of necessity but for health considerations.
“People think slaves were brought here with no knowledge because they didn’t speak English, but no, they knew a lot about the land and healthy eating,” Broadway says. She notes that food is sacred in many traditions and so is what Western society would call clean eating.
“Our soul food culture here has to evolve. We can’t be ignorant of our past and the increased high blood pressure, hypertension, and diabetes,” Smalls says. The reality is that poor food choices were forced on many Black Americans, who weren’t given or allowed to buy better quality food. So they did what people have always done, they made the best of what they had. They made it delicious, but that required an abundance of animal fats.
“Eating cleaner is really about smart choices,” he says, and moderation. Every meat served at Cane Patch can be grilled or blackened or sautéed to be healthier. Customers can also substitute vegan proteins like Jackfruit or soy sausage.
Traditional Black southern food comes from a painful past, “but we, as a people, are survivors and if that means making some changes then that’s what we’ll do,” Broadway says.
If you haven’t read about the miraculous outpouring of community support Cane Patch Kitchen received after social media campaigns urged consumers to support Black-owned restaurants, head over to How a Death, a Movement, and a List Saved a San Diego Restaurant.