Amanda Fox and Cheyanne Willis, who run the vegan deli sandwich spot Seitan’s Helper say they had a total of $111 in their bank account earlier this month on New Year’s Day. The pair managed to pay their rent and utilities bill, but had fallen behind on paying their sales taxes, which amounted to some $10,000, due within the next two weeks.
Managing expenses is not easy for a small, employee-owned business like Seitan’s Helper. The pair first gained local traction making seitan sandwiches at a variety of pop-ups around Brooklyn and nearby Ridgewood, opening their latest spot in 2020, days before the start of the pandemic lockdown. Fox and Willis say staying atop business expenses wasn’t easy.
“The easy part was people wanted vegan sandwiches. The hard part was the business side,” admitted Fox, who also runs a vegan candle business that used to have a brick and mortar in the neighborhood.
“When you put two chefs together who have no accounting experience, no business management experience, you’re just flowing, I can do this one thing but the other part is really hard,” they say.
When unexpected things happen — last year, the oven, air conditioner, and fridge all broke — Fox says they resorted to borrowing out of the money they set aside from sales taxes to pay for those expenses. “That’s where we got into a pickle, now we’re further and further behind,” they say.
Soon after, Fox and Willis posted a video online, vaguely telling followers that disaster was at hand. (“unfortunate news, we need help…we have a few days to raise some money,” they said online.)
They also weren’t the only vegans who were suffering.
Hartbreakers, a vegan fast-casual restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenue had closed its doors early in January, after failing numerous health inspections and racking up some 52 violations from the city’s health department. A former patron who said they wish to remain anonymous told me that the restaurant had a problem with local lanternflies that caused sanitary concerns.
Paradise Tacos, a vegan Mexican spot down the corner on Hart Street closed its doors that month too, reasons undisclosed. Months earlier, Brooklyn Whiskers closed its cafe doors as well, replaced with an expansion of the nearby Orthithology jazz bar.
But the gambit from Seitan’s Helper had more luck, at least for now. Their urgent weekend plea landed them some $11,146 in sales and donations, enough to pay the tax bill and expressing a little bit of radical vulnerability too.
“It’s been wild. It’s hard to be vulnerable and ask for help, so it was hard to make the video, but after we did, the help was immediate,” Fox says, “People just started buying sandwiches and making donations.”
“It feels nice to know that you have friends in the community and you want to support them,” says Sarah Rigney, a Bushwick local who says she’s been a regular at Seitan’s Helper for over two years.
Rigney credits the spot for creating a space that feels familiar for their customers and is especially welcoming for queer folks who are into the vegan lifestyle.
Olivia Levine, a writer and actor, says she’s moved by the way the worker-owned space does business.
“Sometimes they close for mental health days and there’s just a sense of them taking care of themselves, that translates to a sense of them taking care of their customers,” says Levine.
“That feels very anti-corporation, to then see them be successful and how much people like them is very inspiring and reassuring,” she adds.
Fox says it’s becoming harder for vegan spots to remain in business, as so many non-vegan restaurants are increasing their vegan offerings.
“Back in the day there was one place you could go and get everything, now there are bodegas that are popping up that have everything; which is amazing and wonderful but makes it harder for strictly vegan restaurants to have their place,” Fox admits, who also blames inflation for their store’s woes.
Per Fox, four gallons of vegan mayo used to be $26 but now just one gallon costs $50. When they first opened, they were selling a vegan bacon, egg, and cheese for $6.66, now they’re going for $8.66.
Jane Mitchell, another regular, says the price is worth it.
“If the quality is there, I am totally fine. I felt that it was worth it. For me, if something’s worth the money, I can’t resist buying it,” Mitchell told me.
Another vegan I talked to, Nicole Velez, says she’s worried about the impact of rent increases and how that will change the local vegan community.
“Bushwick used to be that place where you can find really good everything, community, bars, all that. Now it’s just more expensive places opening up, places that don’t really fit into the scope of what the community represents,” they said.
Top photo taken by Andrew Karpan.
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