CHATHAM — Soul Veg City doesn’t open for another 30 minutes. But several people are already waiting outside the Chatham mainstay on a cloudy morning, rubbing their stomachs while co-owner Lori Seay examines pans of mac and (vegan) cheese, rich candied yams, collard greens and pot pie soaking in gravy.
“There are always people waiting before the doors open up,” Seay says, chuckling.
The South Side vegan soul food restaurant long known as Original Soul Vegetarian has been delighting diners since 1981. Now rebranded as Soul Veg City — and with new menu items — the owners have overhauled their longtime home on 75th Street and reopened to commemorate their 40th anniversary in business.
Soul Veg City is the latest iteration of the second-generation family business, born out of Seay’s parents’ desire for nutritious food in the community.
“Our customers come from all over, but we wanted them to be able to enjoy this on the South Side of Chicago,” Seay said. “We wanted to create a place that anyone could come and enjoy. The pleasure is to see our customers come in and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ That speaks volumes.”
From Israel To The South Side
Seay said she was born to be an entrepreneur.
Long before she became one of the famous faces behind the vegan joint, she sold food to her classmates in her high school hallways in Israel, where her family moved when she was 7.
When Seay wanted to earn a few shekels, she made homemade potato puffs, placed the goods in paper bags and sold it to her friends. Later, she made scrubs for women.
“I had an entrepreneurial spirit without even knowing what that meant,” Seay said. “I was always selling and making things to make some money. I always had a vision of being the CEO of somebody’s company. I had no idea it would be my own.”
Seay’s parents traveled between Israel and the South Side as she was growing up. Every time Seay’s vegan parents were in the city, they would lament the lack of healthy food options.
So they started their own business.
Soul Vegetarian East opened at 203 E. 75th St. — where the restaurant still stands — in 1981. Seay eventually helped out with bookkeeping in the back office and ringing up customers in the front.
In the beginning, the restaurant was the size of a small storefront. It quickly became a community staple.
“They started the restaurant to provide a healthier way for our people and community to eat,” Seay said. “They wanted to make food that not only tasted good but also helped with a lot of the diseases that were plaguing the Black community, like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attacks. They wanted to give the whole holistic lifestyle, rather than just convenience.”
Seay lived in Israel for much of her life, but by 2008, her time there had run its course, she said. At 39 and with two children, she realized her marriage “had reached as far as it was going to go,” and she still itched to put her entrepreneurial spirit to good use.
“When I got older, I realized I wanted something different for myself,” Seay said. “I wanted to further my education, and I wanted my children to have an opportunity for something different, too.”
Seay moved back to Chicago that year and enrolled in the business administration program at Robert Morris University.
With jobs few and far between, Seay returned to her home away from home: Soul Veg. In all, she’s worked at Soul Veg City for more than three decades.
The longer Seay worked the restaurant, the more she questioned what would happen to the family business once her parents couldn’t run it anymore. So Seay and her brother, Arel Israel, laid the groundwork to take over.
“I was like, ‘Wow, let me see what I can do for us to really turn this into a profitable business,’” Seay said. “It was mainly about not only strengthening the business but having something that could support my family through the years and keep the legacy going.”
Seay and Israel started managing the restaurant in 2012 under their parents’ leadership. That same year, they bought the business from their parents and became co-owners.
By that time, Soul Vegetarian East had been renamed Eternity Juice Bar and Soul Vegetarian Originals. The siblings scrapped the name and started anew as Original Soul Vegetarian.
“From there, we started doing what we could do to help make the business profitable,” Seay said.
‘They Say That Most Black Businesses Don’t Survive The Second Generation‘
It’s been a bumpy road for the siblings at times.
When Seay moved back to Chicago, her daughter was in and out of the hospital for a year being treated for sickle cell disease. In 2013, Seay became ill, requiring brain surgery and radiation.
The business struggled financially.
“All of those challenges are real for small businesses,” Seay said. “It’s not that you don’t want to pay your taxes, but sometimes you’re barely making enough to pay those taxes. I spent many nights just crying.”
The two caught a big break in 2017 when Original Soul Vegetarian received a $250,000 Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant to buy and overhaul their 75th Street building. They used the pandemic year to rebrand and remodel the space into their dream restaurant, Seay said.
Original Soul Vegetarian became Soul Veg City and reopened in June.
“This restaurant is our home away from home,” Seay said. “Once we purchased this property, we knew we were going to stay here forever. It’s only up from here.”
These days, Soul Veg City is a purple paradise with Afro-inspired paintings and quotes on the wall that encourage veganism.
Recipes created and inspired by Seay’s mother still grace the menu, but a few additions are on the list, including creations from Seay herself. Soon, wine and beer will be served.
Popular menu items include zesty cauliflower wings and soulful steak and rice featuring seitan “steak” tossed in jerk BBQ sauce.
“I’m a foodie. I let [the food] talk to me. I visualize it and I see it. You eat with your eyes. So that’s what inspires me,” she said. “I don’t want our food to become boring. It’s always going to be new, innovative and creative.”
While Seay and her brother run the business, their children ring up customers — just as the siblings did when their parents were at the helm.
“They say that most Black businesses don’t survive the second generation,” Seay said. “We both have our children working in the business, so we’re working on the third generation and training them to be successful.”
Seay said she’s looking forward to welcoming customers old and new into the reimagined space.
“Our new tagline is: Welcome to Soul Veg City, where everything is made with love,” Seay said. “That’s what we put inside our employees: service and the food. It just comes across and you taste and feel the difference.”
Seay also said she hopes Soul Veg City’s story inspires people to persevere with their goals.
“Whatever your dream or passion is, don’t quit,” Seay said. “Though you may meet challenges and obstacles and things can get tough, if you’re really passionate about it and you really want to see it win, just keep at it. If I could fight through it with brain surgery, radiation, no money and bank accounts closed, you can, too. It’s all worth it in the end.”
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