On New Year’s Day, Charlotte’s health food scene gained another member with Exposed Vegan, a Black-owned restaurant offering plant-based cuisine in the heart of West Charlotte.
Despite a pandemic that’s gifted many people an extra 10 or 15 pounds as a result of a more sedentary lifestyle, Zsa-Zsa Porter said she and her business partner Nikkis Campbell want to contribute to a healthier landscape by promoting healthy food options.
“When the pandemic hit, we thought we could help our community by providing healthy options. We’re not nurses or doctors, so we started thinking about what roles we could play in the African American community,” Porter said.
Eventually those desires to nourish the local community and debunk restrictive myths on what veganism looks like led to the conception of Exposed Vegan.
She and Campbell hosted a ribbon-cutting via Facebook Live on their Exposed Vegan Facebook page on Nov. 1, 2020, and had over 100 people show up in person even though it was misting rain outside that day.
The two met through Facebook several years ago, but started the restaurant journey last March. They bonded over their love of endurance sports — swimming, biking and running — and their shared love of healthy eating.
Both are accomplished triathletes, having completed the Iron Man challenge — a grueling combination of endurance events that includes a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26-mile run. Porter is also the local ambassador for Black Girls Run, a group whose mission is to “encourage African-American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority.”
When creating the menu, Porter hosted a focus group in her backyard that included several friends she asked to help with meal planning. The most popular items were inspiration for the current menu.
“My oldest son, who is 15, wanted to join the journey and came up with the recipe for our vegan chocolate chip cookies,” Porter said of the popular menu item known as Jason’s Homemade Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Porter, who has been vegan for a year but vegetarian for several years, uses the restaurant’s Facebook page to connect with the community and even host a 21-Day Vegan challenge via a private group, where people can share pictures, recipes, and motivational messages along the way of their health journey.
“When you try something new, you need a support system,” the restaurateur said.
In that vein, Exposed Vegan’s concept is centered on removing myths about being vegan, one of which is that you have to eat salad all day long.
“I love to eat,” Porter said. “And being a triathlete, I have to make sure that I have the right nutrition. Our goal is just to remove all the myths.”
Another one of those myths about what a vegan looks like. “We want to remove the myth that it’s only one culture that’s vegan — that African Americans aren’t vegans,” Porter said.
“We don’t see that many healthy foods in certain areas. We could have put the store anywhere, but we put it right in the middle of West Blvd because we’re truly giving back to the community,” Porter said.
And so far, the West Charlotte community has received the takeout only restaurant warmly.
“They’ve been saying that the food tastes extremely fresh. We make sure that everything is fresh — no preservatives. The soups are made every morning,” Porter said, who uses her 86-year-old grandmother’s recipe for Split Pea Soup.
The three salads on the menu are named for well-known Black women the two restaurateurs admire.
There’s the “Let’s Move Bowl,” named after Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign, and the “Kamala Bowl” named in honor of our nation’s first female Black/Asian-American vice president.
Harriet Tubman is the inspiration behind the “Harriet Promise Bowl” — an idea that came to Porter while she was completing the Iron Man challenge in Maryland and swam across the same body of water the freedom fighter once used. “It’s filled with kale, spinach, quinoa, roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, red onion, broccoli and tomato.”
“The concept of Tubman feeding people as she was saving them really touched us,” Porter said of the decision to create the menu item.
As for menu favorites, Porter’s go-to is the Love Line, a juice that gives her energy after biking or after her morning runs. Her favorite salad is Harriet’s Salad because of the quinoa and roasted potatoes.
And of course, Jason’s Cookies, which are “very tempting when they come out of the oven,” she said.
All ingredients are organic, with the lion’s share coming from the local farmer’s market and the rest from a fresh food vendor. But the goal is to leverage more local farmers for organic produce in the future.
On this endeavor, Porter said, “I want people to know that we are authentic and genuinely here to help the African American community thrive in 20201, and to create healthy options that boost the immune system.”
Future plans for the eatery are just as exciting. “We don’t want to stop with just the restaurant. We’re investing in food trucks, too — one in the spring and another in the summer.” Porter said the additions will bear the same name as the restaurant.
There are also plans to sell merchandise like shirts and triathlete gear. Customers will be able to shop the line at Exposed Vegan or on the website.
1540 West Blvd., Suite 102