If you find yourself at the green and black food truck outside Cleo’s Bodega, there’s a good chance you’ll see 7-year-old Zanaya Slack peeking over the counter. She and her two older sisters, Zyla and Zion, help their parents run Black Leaf Vegan. Derrick and Taria Slack, who’ve been vegans for five years, started the food truck when their favorite vegan restaurants closed due to the pandemic.
Most would be wary of opening a business in the middle of a pandemic. But for Derrick, a veteran businessman, overcoming hurdles is just a normal part of entrepreneurship.
“We’re African American, so there’s always some kind of pandemic or something that happens, and we didn’t feel [the pandemic] was any different,” Derrick said. “When our favorite places closed down, we wanted to start making some vegan food and thought other people might want some as well.”
The hard work paid off. This year, Black Leaf Vegan will be the first vegan vendor in Indiana State Fair history. Derrick hopes to show potential customers that you can have comfort food that isn’t a detriment to your health.
The Slack family adopted a vegan lifestyle following the death of Taria’s father. After researching their respective family histories, both Derrick and Taria found hypertension, diabetes and cancer. Both hypertension and diabetes are more common in African American populations, but not necessarily because of predisposition.
Instead, Derrick argues, changing diet habits can reduce one’s risk of developing various diseases. The No. 1 goal for Black Leaf Vegan, Derrick said, is to protect the community.
“We’re a business, so we want to win customers, but we also want the community to be healthy,” Derrick said. “That’s our primary mission. If our community is healthy, everyone benefits and we have a more vibrant society.”
Everything about Black Leaf Vegan is family oriented. All three daughters are listed as owners of the limited liability corporation (LLC), they’re involved in meetings about ingredients and new food options — the girls came up with the idea to add nachos to the menu — and the daughters work the truck a few nights a week.
“When we talk about generation wealth, it isn’t just about money,” Derrick said. “It’s about the knowledge we leave behind, the health that we have as norms in our lives. It’s about being emotionally and mentally healthy. That’s what I consider generational wealth, and when they grow up, they can pass that on.”
Derrick estimates about 50% of customers aren’t vegan but said most wouldn’t recognize they aren’t eating meat. While his favorite menu item is the tacos, the best-seller — and his youngest daughter’s favorite — is the bacon ranch burger.
Topped with homemade vegan ranch, coleslaw and coconut-based “bacon” that would fool any carnivore, the burger is making customers question everything they thought they knew about vegan food.
Mike Wardlow tried Black Leaf Vegan’s tacos at an event April 12. On April 14, he was in line at the food truck waiting on a bacon ranch burger.
“I’m not a vegan, but they’re about to make me one,” Wardlow said. “The food is so good, and I can’t tell it’s not beef.”
Thanks to dedication and word-of-mouth advertising, Black Leaf Vegan is quickly growing. Derrick plans to add another truck later this year, and the girls hope to have a vegan ice cream truck over the summer. Regardless of the changes that may come to Black Leaf, Derrick said the main goal will always be to teach customers — especially those in the African American community — that health starts with what you eat.
“Our long-term goal is to keep introducing foods that are healthier to our community,” Derrick said. “What you’re ingesting — whether it’s the food you eat or the media you consume — creates a balance in your life. The more we are conscious about those things, we as a community are better off physically, spiritually and financially.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.